Rajesh Sharma, Deepak Dobriyal, Farhan Akhtar, Gippy Grewal and Inaamulhaq in ‘Lucknow Central’. Image Credit: Viacom 18 Motion Pictures

Lucknow Central is an engaging thriller, which makes a brave attempt to penetrate the politics of prison life without relinquishing the right to engage us in a solid storytelling spree. The cat-and-mouse game is played out between a sadistic jailer (Ronit Roy, in top form) and a non-guilty prisoner (Farhan Akhtar) who is bent on getting his liberty at any cost.

The thoughtfully written script (by Ranjit Tiwari, Aseem Arora) delves into the dynamics of freedom and comes up with a super-chic musical with wings that often allow vivid characters to fly higher than prison dramas generally do in India.

Lucknow Central is a prison-break drama on par with Franklin Schaffener’s 1973 classic Papillon and superior in its intellectual political and spiritual ramifications to Shawshank Redemption. Redemption in the film is a scarce commodity. This, its protagonist Kishen discovers as he journeys from a dreamer in the streets of a small town in Uttar Pradesh, to a convict within 20 minutes of this gripping film’s playtime.

Debutant director Ranjit Tiwari is a self-assured storyteller. For a newcomer he shows scant regard for commercial trappings. When was the last time we saw a prison drama without an item song? Or a film about injustice where the hero doesn’t get to raise his voice or lower his fists on corrupt jaws? Akhtar’s Kishen is so soft-hearted and kind, we wonder how he will survive in prison for a crime he never committed.

Akhtar plays Kishen as a dreamer-musician coping with a crisis beyond his comprehension but determined to slum it out even if it means breaking some laws. This is his bravest, most soul-baring performance to date. Scenes of his breakdown in solitary confinement will remain with us long after the last episode of Prison Break is over.

The steel-willed screenplay provides Akhtar solid support. Early on in a seemingly authentic courtroom scene, the smirking judge’s verdict on Kishen’s faith will shock you by its sheer casualness.

Let’s not beat around the bush, an indulgence that this film is assuredly not guilty of thanks to Charushree Roy’s editing, which weaves in and out of the inmates’ lives with the expertise of a trapeze artiste. What starts off as Akhtar’s story soon becomes the story of four other prison inmates, each played by an actor who has rare insight into human nature.

Talent like Rajesh Sharma, Imaanulhaq and Deepak Dobriyal usually never let a film down. Here they have so much meat to chew on, it is feast of fury for them. As Akhtar’s band, they are seasoned troupers in a particularly inspired environment. And Gippy Garewal adds flavour when joins them as a Sardar ji pining for his sweetheart singing soul-penetrating songs of separation.

Then there Ravi Kissen a hoot as UP’s calm, cynical Chief Minister with a sense of humour who keeps reminding khaki-clad bureaucrats that the journey from officer to traffic police is just a signature way.

Lucknow Central draws viewers into its human drama. It gives a flying hoot about commercial trappings, keeps the frames stark, bare and daunting. No concession is made to glamorous props.

And if Diana Penty playing a kind of self important activist that would otherwise seem satirical, happens to be naturally glamorous, it’s just too bad.

An ongoing sense of inclusiveness runs through the film. We feel so much part of the goings-on that we cry, laugh, sing and dance with Kishen and his four band members. Their Kabootar song in the prison compound is arguably the best choreographed dance number seen in a Hindi film in recent times.

It looks so unrehearsed, so spontaneous.... just like the film where the characters probably existed long before the writer and director thought about them. We just didn’t know or care.


Don’t miss it

Film: Lucknow Central

Starring: Farhan Akhtar, Gippy Grewal, Diana Penty, Deepak Dobriyal, Rajesh Sharma, Inamulhaq

Rating: PG13

Runtime: 160 minutes

Stars: 4 out of 5