The law, no matter how well intended, protects the powerful. Bribes can get around it, and who can afford bribes? Excellent lawyers can get around it, and who can afford those lawyers? And add to that, modern lawmakers must contend with a legal history that has blatantly favored the rich, the noble, and the colonizer.
So the common people, usually our heroes, resort to justice. Taking the law into their own hands (though this can easily become mob justice). The system can be impossible to change, or change quickly, so people must work outside of the system.
In Western films, we celebrate the cop who plays by his own rules to get the job done. In Bollywood films, we celebrate idealistic young people seeking justice for a friend or family member.
Even in these movies, for whom is justice served? With the exception of Parched and Gulaab Gang, I can only think of movies that focus on men. “But what about ones that focus on justice for a mother, like Trimurti?” you may ask. True, but those still focus on the sons as characters. But I’ll concede the point.
Ungli is about the intersection of law and justice. It is incredibly entertaining: a team of young vigilantes, each with their own strengths, working together to right wrongs in creative ways (and without killing anyone!). The animated titles would fit right in with Marvel’s cinematic universe.
Each member of the team is seen as equally important:
Maya (Kangana Ranaut), who works in the medical field (it’s not entirely clear if she’s a doctor, nurse, or something else, but she is able to access and use tranquilizers)
Gautam (Neil Bhoopalam), a computer engineer
Kalim (Angad Bedi), a mechanic
Abhay (Randeep Hooda), a journalist
They use new media to their advantage, filming their exploits and uploading them to a YouTube expy. Their homemade balaclavas are certainly not unique to any one group, but certainly bring to mind Pussy Riot, who had been particularly active 2012-2014. Abhay works for a television news station and uses his connections to get his message on the air. They use simple, iconic imagery (a stenciled middle finger) as a calling card, a symbol eagerly adopted by others.
They help a poor retiree receive his pension. They expose corrupt practices in issuing driver’s licences. They appear brutal — strapping bombs to the necks of pension office clerks — only to reveal that they are creative: the bombs are fake. The clerks are exposed and made to look foolish.
The movie even explains how the four know each other and why they are so athletic: they met at a gym, and had the same trainer, Maya’s brother. Her brother, who was seriously injured in a confrontation about a car accident and is now in a coma. When his attacker was brought to trial, he was found not guilty. No justice for Maya’s brother.
And so we see, again, that justice is still about men, still about that personal connection. Not for justice’s sake, not for pure empathy. And Maya, for as cool as she is, is still regulated to being the healer, to worrying about family.
The police, of course, want to put a stop to the Ungli gang. A rogue cop, Nikhil (Emraam Hashmi), trying to live up to his deceased father’s example, is put on the case. He infiltrates the gang, gaining their trust by performing similar stunts. And even his stunts are close to home, such as showing the unfairness of rickshaw fares because of an issue his mother encounters.
But that is a strength of the movie: while most of the main characters are men, women are everywhere. They are out in the world, living their lives. Maya learns about the pensioner from his daughter. Abhay’s colleague Teesta (Neha Dhupia) covers the story. (Though he is in love with her and uses his insider knowledge to his advantage, and even sneaks in to her bedroom.) Women appear on the news, praising the Ungli gang. And so on. Even if they are nameless, they are there. They exist.
As always happens, Nikhil is exposed: he reveals to the police where the gang’s location. The gang realized Nikhil has betrayed them and at the last moment he has a change of heart, helping his new friends escape.
Nikhil’s superior, Kaale (Sanjay Dutt) finally agrees to stop pursuing the gang, and even join them when faced with corruption in the police force. After exposing the corruption (which conveniently involved the man who had put Maya’s brother into a coma), Kaale is promoted, promising a corruption-free force. The gang is happy to disband (for now).
Is upholding the status quo really a happy ending? Kaale is an older man. What happens when he retires? The power structures that led to exploitation remain in place. If laws are the problem, obviously new laws won’t necessarily fix them. And completely changing the system for something new, especially within the course of a few months (or a few hours in movie time) is a lot to ask.
But a movie about justice, about fighting for the invisible, ending with a celebration of the establishment of law and order feels hollow.
Ungli is a fun movie with entertaining set pieces, though at times the various plots feel disconnected from one another. The songs are fine but forgettable. Solid performances. Already light, with a slightly lighter tone it could have gotten away with its ending. But since the entire film is concerned with justice and marginalized people, an ending that supports existing power structures just doesn’t land.