(An edited version of this was published in The New Indian Express)
First, a memorial service for Arshad Warsi as Jagdish Tyagi aka Jolly LLB. An eternal underdog cast as the lovable underdog in what eventually became a sleeper hit was shunned when the stakes seemingly became higher. They say it’s got to do with economics but it may not be as simple as that. Warsi minced no words when he said that if it was to be him then there is more pressure on the makers to actually make a good film letting go of the escape velocity that a star would provide even for middling cinema. Warsi is a great performer and as a non-star, he imbibed Jolly’s small town ingenuousness that slowly transforms into giant-killing guile. There is nothing against Akshay Kumar on paper. Himself a performer and a survivor, what he brings extra is the star wattage that takes away that shrewd but unadulterated quality of the original Jolly. Kumar’s Jolly possesses a machismo (he is asked not to behave like Sunny Deol in court) that is contradictory to Jolly as we know him. Subhash Kapoor and team are only making this a franchise set in the same universe. It’s not the same Jolly and we wonder like Saurabh Shukla who plays the same character and gets a deja vu when he meets Jolly for the first time. But why?
The star wattage of Akshay Kumar as Jagdishwar Mishra aka Jolly brings with it a star level introduction scene where he earns a couple of extra bucks by helping students in a school pass an English language exam. Using loudspeakers. This Jolly isn’t a slouch like Warsi’s Jolly was in the beginning of that film. He has a wife and a kid and is getting by, by hook or by crook. The first film at its core wrestled with moral questions between two warring classes. Here Jolly himself isn’t morally upright right from the start and he needs something bigger to jolt him out of his inebriated state. These are some of the weakest portions of Jolly LLB 2. Everything is perfunctory and almost nothing is organic. The canteen owner father figure from the first film becomes the actual father here. Jagdish Tyagi’s predicaments tugged at your heartstrings while Jagdishwar Mishra’s story violently wakes you up from slumber. A nightmare scene particularly is the stuff of embarrassments.
But we slowly realize that Subhash Kapoor and Jolly LLB 2 aim higher. When the action shifts to the courtroom we realize that Kapoor has eschewed the black and white morals of the first film and is going for grayer areas that have communal, political and judicial undertones. Suddenly it makes us wonder if there was more to the opposition this film faced with the censor board and lawyer outfits. There are tons of caste and religious symbolism that Kapoor packs here and there, some in your face and some delightfully offhand. An example of the latter kind would be what Jolly does with the sacred thread across his torso when he returns home late one night and goes for a few pegs. There is a cricket match between Hindu women and Muslim women in Banaras called Ghoongat vs Burqa! Jolly rides the coattails of the law firm belonging to a Muslim lawyer and is routinely rejected by the firm’s potential Muslim clients. The desperate ones like Hina (Sayani Gupta) respect him and even if they don’t request him to take up their case, want him to put it in a word with his boss. Kapoor makes full use of the Lucknow setting. The case is about a fake encounter of a Muslim man believed to be a terrorist while his only crime is having a similar sounding name. He is killed by a cop whose car windshield screams Jai Mata Di. A case not too unfamiliar to the real world. Jolly is now Shahid Azmi and because this is a more mainstream film, politically charged drama gives way to judicial theatre.
And what theatre! Maybe this is the reason Boman Irani has given way to Annu Kapoor. While Irani is always a more dignified presence, Annu Kapoor can do things on screen that you’d both laugh and cringe at at the same time. While the first film concerned itself only within the court and its technicalities, Kapoor couldn’t care less with those things in the second film. In Jolly LLB 2, very real problems are dealt with in purest cinematic terms. The best part? Subhash Kapoor isn’t ashamed to do so and trusts that we’d buy it. There are lawyers slapping each other or delivering whistle worthy dialogues about rendering the other unable to relieve themselves. Kapoor still takes care of the little details. Like when Jolly files the PIL and during the first hearing, there are hardly people in court. It is not shown but the courtroom swells with time as the stakes increase. The communal symbolism is always hanging over the film – from Lucknow to Kashmir – and it doesn’t suffer from problems like one good Muslim or any such. Jolly LLB 2 talks of profiling, of religious tensions, has god-men in saffron robes and warns of simplistic discourse and fascist ideas like ‘all is fair in love and war’ . It doesn’t get preachy even though it does get heavy compared to the earlier film. Does all of it work? Maybe not. It’s also uneven because Jolly LLB 2’s politics may be in the right place but its filmmaking leaves a lot to be desired. Trust Saurabh Shukla to save the day. He dances his way to the court, quite literally. He makes even the obvious jokes work and his ability to overplay and underplay is admirable. But his short monologue in the end is endearing. Kapoor films it from Shukla’s closeup and slowly pans out to a long shot as we see files resembling tomes and his weight resting upon them and the stenographers furiously typing away. A long day has come to an end that harks back to another time when news came late in the day – freedom at midnight.