Tuesday 15 December 2015

"Judge Singh LLB" (Guardian 14/12/15)

Judge Singh LLB ***
Dir: Atharv Baluja. With: Ravinder Grewal, B.N. Sharma, Sardar Sohi, Anita Devgan. 137 mins. Cert: 12A

Legal minds are forever seeking precedent, yet the Punjabi indie Judge Singh LLB may stand as the first socially conscious courtroom drama to open on an image of two men noisily voiding their bowels into a ditch. It’s a leftfield set-up, to say the least: in the hunt for something with which to clean up, one of these lowly squatting souls uncovers the body of a woman apparently slain in an honour killing by her brother, the son of a prominent politician. From there, the situation develops quickly. The politico bribes police to frame the deceased’s partner; isolated defecation gives way to a broader constitutional mess. Soon enough, everyone’s got dirty hands.

Within these initial movements, there are surely the makings of a Grishamish potboiler, and – as early viewers have detected – the beginnings of a wry comment on Modi’s India. Such robes, however, cloak a Capraesque slacker comedy; some career-minded Western screenwriter might tidy it up to enable another Adam Sandler vehicle. Our hero Judge (Ravinder Grewal) – and yes, that’s his given name – is only passing as a legal eagle in order to impress the family of his bride-to-be. Naturally, he has the misfortune to initiate this pretence as the aforementioned case comes to trial; naturally, he winds up having to defend the patsy against the pitiless machinations of the state.

Of course, this is wildly implausible – so implausible, in fact, that writer-director Atharv Baluja doesn’t trouble to explain how this case gets assigned to this rookie. Corner-cutting prevails throughout the film: its handheld camerawork and occasional continuity blips suggest a production shot on the hoof during recesses in real-life chambers. Matters get especially frenetic around the intermission, as Judge’s deception is exposed, and you wonder whether Baluja can pull it back. Yet elsewhere the film proceeds with a wealth of enthusiasm and spirit: this is the kind of scrappy underdog production that wins us over early and – even through its muddle-headed stretches – keeps giving us reasons to cheer for it.

Partly, it’s the actors, who are skilfully cast and no chore whatsoever to watch. The gently nerdy Grewal builds a genuinely sweet relationship with B.N. Sharma as Judge’s father/landlord: the pride they take in one another’s achievements, even after we learn that dad has been borrowing his son’s underpants, remains touching indeed. And Sardar Sohi’s wily turn as state prosecutor T.S. Brar, whose pre-trial routine includes combing three strands of hair across an otherwise gleaming bonce in the Homer Simpson style, proves very effective in demonstrating the merciless attack dog our dreamy hero must either become, or overcome, if there is to be anything like a fair trial.

Editorially, Baluja’s film still verges on the pipsqueak, as naïve in its belief that virtue will out as any movie casting Jimmy Stewart as a plain-spoken public servant. Yet the stakes are certainly raised, not least when Brar – and this really is a precedent – urinates into our hero’s fridge. And one clever development involving mobile toilets suggests what might be achieved should the right resources be placed in conscientious hands: an end to all this public excretion, if nothing else. Time will tell whether the Judge’s rousing summation – delivered in a gleaming white turban – helps restore a measure of justice within India. As entertainment, however, Judge Singh LLB overrules most of one’s objections.

Judge Singh LLB is now playing in selected cinemas.

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