Cast: G. V. Prakash Kumar, Abarnathi, Radhika Sarathkumar
Of all the many ways to tell stories, Vasanthabalan chooses the most curiously obvious ones. He begins his latest outing, Jail, with a montage lecturing us about the displacement of slum dwellers. Then, he uses elaborate voiceovers to describe what's evidently happening on screen. You know, the kind where when Karuna (GV Prakash Kumar) cons someone and steals their iPhone, the voiceover says "ivan oru thirudan" (he is a petty thief).
A few scenes later, backstories are told through the ramblings of drunk men. Like, "after you went to jail, this is what happened to us." And this happens again. One of them drunkenly cries about how his sister is like a mother to him. And then, towards the end of the film, a policeman injects Karuna with truth serum and starts confessing to crimes. Yes, the policeman explains his master plan to the man he drugged to extract information from. But, overall, lazy tropes are the least of Jail's problems.
Vasanthabalan's Jail is the story of Karuna, a petty thief; his friend Kalai, a youngster returning from jail after suffering disproportionate punishment for a minor crime; and Rocky, a ganja peddler. When Rocky is murdered, throwing Kalai in trouble, Karuna takes it upon himself to protect him. Whether he succeeds makes up the rest of this film.
For starters, Jail takes a condescending approach to the lives of the people it seeks to represent. It talks about them in the second person, an external narrator's voice introducing each character, instantly putting us at a distance from the story we're watching. The one elderly character who fights legal battles against the displacement is almost written as a joke — a deluded believer taking their problems to international courts. To say nothing of the fact that nearly every male character is a good-for-nothing criminal.
And then, there is the story itself. The message about displacement and the lives of these men in crime never feel organically connected. The director wastes so much time explaining the specific type of piles that the police inspector has. But expects us to automatically make the complex connections between displacement, poverty, lack of education, unemployment, drug peddling and violent crime.
In an interesting scene, two warring gang members fight in a playground in full public view. One waving a weapon to kill the other. The entire community watches from a distance. Some from their balconies, some just gathered around the ground. Yet, no one steps in to stop the violence. No one cares for the two men fighting, except the family of one of them. This scene is rather telling of where Vasanthabalan positions the criminal behaviour of his characters. He never makes it clear if they are 'one of us pushed to crime by the establishment' or 'deviants to be looked down upon.'
So, right till the end, what Jail says and what it shows never meet. If you removed the bookends, you might easily mistake it for a regular-fare gangster film.
The screenplay, too, is staccato. A mild romantic scene between two supporting actors cuts into a loud, unrelated song. A man who couldn't even say the final goodbye to his mother — because he was drugged by the cop and passed out for three days — surpasses grief in a jiffy and performs a celebratory dance in the rain after making a simple discovery. The last act goes back and forth in time, the desperation for building suspense rather jarring. A religious festival happens out of nowhere, it must be some sort of metaphor I didn't understand.
For a film that wants to fight against institutional discrimination, it makes one cop the villain. Even as it caricatures him, it repeatedly asserts that he is the only problem. So much so that there is a scene where another cop from narcotics proudly claims, "there are good cops in the force, too." He follows that up with, "boys?" and they all yell back, "yes, sir!"
GV Prakash Kumar's background score makes Jail confusing. The gangster film-like treatment in action sequences doesn't support the premise of discrimination the film's going for. The songs feel unnecessary in the already tedious film.
Despite being a reasonably short film at two hours and fifteen minutes, Jail is tiresome. None of the conversations makes us feel anything for any of the characters. The film itself can't decide if it wants to be a message padam or a gangster saga or a drama about the marginalised. If it's going for all of that, it doesn't do much to command investment. In the industry that made films of the calibre of Kaala, Karnan, Asuran etc., Jail feels trite. Like an idea gone on screen too soon.