The most memorable character in Prakash Jha’s follow-up to his police drama Gangaajal is played by Prakash Jha. Jai Gangaajal stars Priyanka Chopra as the supposed lead, but as events prove, the movie’s real hero is Jha’s corrupt police officer, who has a change of heart and sets out to fix what he helped destroy.

Jha’s Damul, made in 1985, was about bonded labour and caste oppression in Bihar. Numerous middle-class versions of Damul’s economic slaves have shown up in his movies since. They’re visible in Gangaajal (2003), a contentious fictionalisation of the notorious Bhagalpur blindings in 1979 and 1980, and Apaharan (2005) about the kidnapping industry in Bihar.

Gangaajal suggested that the pouring of acid into the eyes of prisoners by policemen was a necessary evil justified by political interference in the law and order machinery. Jai Gangaajal retains Jha’s faith in our men and women in khaki. The movie has a fine roster of evil men, including Manav Kaul, Ninad Kamat and Murli Sharma as his eunuch henchman, but the plum role is served for the director.

Jha also plays the part of BN Singh, a police officer who is on the payroll of politician Babloo Pandey (Kaul) and his brother Dabloo (Kamat) in the town of Lakhisarai. The unfortunate citizen who dares rise up against Babloo is quickly crushed. The system has broken down, and it suits these gentlemen just fine.

Enter idealistic Superintendent of Police Abha Mathur (Priyanka Chopra), a political appointee of Babloo’s mentor (Kiran Karmarkar). Abha is no file-pushing stooge. She is the type who chases criminals on the streets with the enthusiasm of a rookie constable. The hardest-working SP in the country soon finds herself embroiled in the machinations of Babloo and Dabloo, who are trying to steamroll the town’s residents into giving up their agricultural land for a power project. Her every move is anticipated and checkmated by BN Singh, and the pretty police officer can do little more than purse her lips in frustration and wait for another chance to swing her wooden stick.

But this 148-minute saga is not about Abha Mathur’s clean-up of the rot that infects Lakhisarai. Rather, it’s about the turning of the worm. All it takes is a short lecture by Abha for BN Singh’s conscience to twitch, and the crooked cop decides to go straight. The opportunity presents itself in the form of a family that is refusing to sell its land for the power project. A body swings from the tree, one of the first of many hangings in this UA-rated movie, and BN Singh is a man transformed.

Jai Gangaajal badly wants to shake its intended viewers out of their popcorn-induced stupor, and one of the weapons it employs is the deafening background score: the action sequences are accompanied by rousing songs bemoaning the lousy state of affairs.

It isn’t as if Jha lets the lynchings go without comment. Rahul Bhat plays a world-weary activist who raises his voice when the public takes matters into its own hands. But the nuance is drowned out by the background music, leaving no doubt about who we are supposed to root for.

For all its high-minded moralising, Jai Gangaajal plays out like a 1980s vigilante movie. Abha’s near-abstract insistence on following the rules – a more uncharitable assessment would be to doubt her intelligence at grasping the reality of the situation – barely fits with the portrayal of a criminal justice system that has completely corroded. Priyanka Chopra’s distractingly glamourous looks find mention but once in the movie, although she is by far the most attractive creature in the small-town outpost. The actor brings her customary efficiency and dedication to the role. Despite being miscast, she works hard. She has her fair share of action scenes to prove her physical prowess, but so does the inside man who is the movie’s real hero.

Jha shoots over Chopra’s shoulder in valourising his character, who has the best-written emotional arc and the strongest scenes. The director, who has also written the screenplay, has a deep understanding of how things work in these badlands, and he is not blind to the difficulties of trying to fix what is badly broken. But BN Singh’s solutions are ultimately no different – and certainly less watchable – than the average vigilante flick. Singh ultimately emerges as a more serious and sorrowful Chulbul Pandey, and all Jai Gangaajal needed was a shirt-baring moment to complete the fantasy of justice delivered off the books and in slow motion.