Dasvi isn’t meant to be taken literally or seriously. The film delivers a yarn about a political leader who rediscovers the joys of learning in prison with an ostentatious wink and a big grin.

Ganga Ram Choudhary (Abhishek Bachchan) is the proudly semi-literate chief minister of the fictitious Harit Pradesh, having won election after election despite not studying beyond the eighth standard. After Ganga Ram is arrested in a scam, he hands over the reins to his submissive wife Bimla (Nimrat Kaur) and impatiently waits for bail.

Ganga Ram’s free run in prison, aided by warden Satpal (Manurishi Chadha), ends with the arrival of a new superintendent. The upright and super-strict Jyoti (Yami Gautam Dhar) torments Ganga Ram as might a headmistress a truculent pupil. Worse still for Ganga Ram, Bimla settles too nicely into her new role, graduating overnight from docile housewife into power-hungry leader.

Ganga Ram has his own moment of edification when he decides to take the tenth-standard exam. An excuse to escape work duties in prison leads to Ganga Ram’s transformation from garden-variety corrupt politician into enlightened mass leader.

Yami Gautam Dhar and Manurishi Chaddha in Dasvi (2022). Courtesy Maddock Films/Jio Studios.

Tushar Jalota’s directorial debut, which is being streamed on JioCinema and Netflix, is based on a story idea by Ram Bajpai and a screenplay by Ritesh Shah, Suresh Nair and Sandeep Leyzell. Dasvi proceeds as a series of comic episodes, some of which are not as rib-tickling as they might have appeared on the page.

The humour is always better when it isn’t forced or underlined. Bimla’s rampage through the corridors of power and Ganga Ram’s bristling runs-in with Jyoti yield broad and predictable comedy. More memorable is the support given to Ganga Ram’s exam preparations by other inmates, including characters played by Danish Husain (the librarian “Raebareli”) and Arun Khuswaha (“Ghanti”).

Initial snobbery over the superiority of the educated over the partly literate soon gives way to a sly and more rewarding narrative about the difference between rote learning and knowledge. The chief minister’s compromised aide Tandon (Chittaranjan Tripathy) is an example of how education is meaningless without a spine.

Ganga Ram’s encounters with pre-Independence revolutionaries, including MK Gandhi and Chandrashekhar Azad (Jawaharlal Nehru is nowhere to be seen), reminds him of the sacrifices that made Indian democracy possible. “Inquilab zindabad!” Ganga Ram yells to nobody in particular, channelling his inner Bhagat Singh (or Kanhaiya Kumar).

Despite running longer than it should, Dasvi manages to keep its earnest preachiness in check. The solid cast is ably led by Abhishek Bachchan, more alert and attentive than he has been in a while. Nimrat Kaur is a hoot as the embodiment of one of Ganga Ram’s prison lessons – absolute power corrupts absolutely.

The film is as scattershot as Ganga Ram’s attempts to master his textbooks. As in school, the big learnings are incidental and beyond the syllabus.

Dasvi (2022).