Farhan Akhtar is cast as a singer yet again after the Rock On!!! movies, but he doesn’t sing in his hoarse voice this time, which works very well for the actor-director as well as debutant filmmaker Ranjit Tiwari.
Akhtar delivers a convincing performance as Kishen, whose big dream to form a music band is ruined after he is framed for the murder of a government officer and sentenced to life. When the state’s chief minister (Ravi Kishen) orders that Kishen’s prison, Lucknow Central, win an inter-jail band competition, Kishen sees a chance to escape his unjust incarceration. Encouraged by social worker Gayatri (Diana Penty), Kishen assembles a group of misfits, none of whom can hold a note but all of who want to flee the coop. They are played by Rajesh Sharma, Gippy Grewal, Deepak Dobriyal and Inaamulhaq. The police chief (Virendra Saxena) cooperatives with their game after being threatened with a transfer if the scheme doesn’t work. The party-pooper is the cruel jail warden (Ronit Roy), who immediately divines Kishen’s real motives and tries very hard to place obstacles in his path.
Based on a screenplay by Aseem Arora, Lucknow Central walks down familiar corridors, but it manages to make well-trodden material seem far more interesting than it actually is. Despite its unwieldy length and unconvincing climax, the movie is far superior to the similarly themed August 25 release Qaidi Band, with better developed characters, a better narrative and score and welcome humour. The ill-treatment of inmates in Indian prisons has been seen before but bears repeating, even if the perennially petulant and eternally glamourous Gayatri isn’t the best vehicle. The movie manages to be less preachy than Qaidi Band was about the state of undertrials in India. Humour mingles with the pathos of prison life with some good tunes along the way, including a rousing remix of Kawa Kawa from Monsoon Wedding (2001).
The performances are evenly divided too, with Ronit Roy making for a convincing, if familiar, psychopath in uniform and the ever-dependable Rajesh Sharma infusing necessary humanity into his character. Ravi Kishen has a delightful cameo as the chief minister who will have his way to ensure that he tops the trending charts, even if he doesn’t quite understand what that is.
Time spent in prison assumes an elastic and unreliable quality, and it is unfortunate that Tiwari lets his movie to be infected too. There is far too much going on here for 147 minutes, with an overwritten build-up and an overblown climax, which undermines not just the jailer’s authority but narrative logic too. The eardrum-shattering background music only heavily underlines what is already evident, and we await the day when movie scores elevate a scene, rather than rub it in our faces.
The scenes that linger are the one involving the interactions between the five band mates, especially the moment when four of them get out on parole and realise that life outside prison is hardly any better. Inside jail, there is camaraderie, music, and the faint hope of recognition and respect.