It’s not often that one gets the opportunity to sit back and enjoy a Saurabh Shukla performance. The quintessential supporting actor, his roles are, all too often, supporting actor length. Not that he can’t do great things with 10 minutes of screen time— Hazaron Khwaishein Aisi is testament to this—but when he gets some width, Shukla is a joy to watch. Subhash Kapoor must recognize this; he gave Shukla one of his most fleshed-out roles, that of Judge Sundar Lal Tripathi, in 2013’s Jolly LLB. Shukla responded by stealing the film from under Arshad Warsi and Boman Irani’s noses.
Shukla is also the only actor carried forward to the somewhat-sequel, Kapoor’s Jolly LLB 2. Warsi has had to make to way for Akshay Kumar; “Jolly” now refers Jagdishwar Mishra, not Jagdish Tyagi. The premise, though, is much the same: unrefined newbie lawyer goes up against smooth-talking big city player, grows a conscience, takes on the system. This Jolly is tasked with proving the innocence of Iqbal (Manav Kaul), falsely branded a terrorist and shot by the police in a fake encounter. Arguing for the defence is Pramod Mathur (Annu Kapoor), a Lucknow attorney who’s friends with the inspector who killed Iqbal.
Some of the underdog scrappiness of the 2013 film survives, but casting Kumar in the lead means an abundance of what, for lack of a better word, one might call “hero moments”. When Warsi in the earlier film threatened to slap someone silly in court, it was both funny and revealing of a streetwise character up against something much larger than himself. When Kumar threatens to do the same (thrice), it’s what the audience already expects from him. This is not to say that Kumar isn’t an effective Jolly—there’s a comforting solidity to his performance—but when you bring in a huge star to replace a minor one, there are beats that have to be hit.
Jolly LLB 2 has a busy plot, but the film’s real triumph is the wealth of detail that informs the scenes. Kapoor, who’s also written the film, has a good eye and ear for the blackly comic and the mildly surreal: a suhaag raat scene with the groom in handcuffs, a cricket match between hijab- and sari-clad teams. His visual style is unobtrusive but notice how the background is forever busy, whether it’s policemen chuckling or Jolly’s wife, Pushpa (Huma Qureshi), wiping their kid’s nose. Kapoor also has a knack for efficiently sketched side characters. Kumar, Annu Kapoor (very droll) and Shukla get the best lines, but Kaul as Iqbal, Rajiv Gupta as Jolly’s sidekick, and Inaamulhaq (in a late cameo) all have brief, memorable turns.
Not for the first time, I found myself wishing Kapoor would find the women in his films something to do. Pushpa is introduced as the kind of person who throws a fit because her hardworking husband won’t buy her a Gucci dress, and ends up as a cheerleader for him. Iqbal’s wife, Hina, played with some fire by Sayani Gupta, is little more than a device to help Jolly access his conscience. There’s also a disconcerting amount of screen-time dedicated to teary lectures about patriotism and duty. This has become somewhat of an Akshay Kumar staple in recent years: a dispiriting sidebar to his evolution as an actor.
There’s little doubt about what kind of film Jolly LLB 2 wants to be: broad, accessible and successful. Sometimes, this results in scenes more perplexing than stirring, like when Mathur stages a sit-down in court and an exasperated Tripathi joins him in opposition. Yet, even in the more bombastic moments, there’s often poignancy to be found. Towards the end, the judge gives a speech about the virtues of the Indian legal system. As he speaks, the camera pans back slowly to reveal stacks and stacks of case files—justice delayed, perhaps denied.