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Prison Reform

Friday, September 15, 2017
By Deepa Gahlot

This week’s release, 'Lucknow Central' is set in a jail, where the lead characters form a band to try to escape, but there are also the issues of justice and reform raised.

Back in 1957, V. Shantaram had made a film called 'Do Aankhen Barah Haathi, which made a case for reform over punishment. Shantaram was one of the socially conscious filmmakers of his time, who believed in the educative and transformative power of cinema.

Based on a story by Marathi writer GD Madgulkar, the film was inspired by a real-life example of an open prison in rural Maharashtra. Shantaram himself played the jail warden, Adinath, who wished to reform and rehabilitate six dangerous prisoners. He picks these hardened criminals, and takes them to his distant village, where he wants to teach them the value of hard work and cooperation, as they aim to turn dry, barren land into a lush green farm. He believes that trust and the right kind of guidance will change the lives of these men, who were doomed to spend their lives in a cruel and uncaring prison system.

The murderers find their redemption, but the society around them is still evil and envious, which results in the success of the experiment, but also the death of the warden.

Shantaram knew that a subject as dry as this would need mainstream elements, so there is one female character, a toy seller, played by Sandhya, who sings a couple of the film’s beautiful songs, that include 'Saiyan jhoothon he bada', 'Aye Maalik Tere Bande Hum', 'Tak tak dhoom', 'Gumad ghumad ke aayi re ghata'. He also has some very moving scenes, since the men who are seen by society as killers, also have families they care for and did not want to abandon. Beautifully shot in black and white, the film’s splendid visual quality helped underline the story of the men society gave up on, changing with one man’s faith in them.

The compassion and idealism projected by the character of the warden may seem unbelievable, but the fact is that the current prison system seldom ends up making criminals repent or reform. The film won multiple awards in India, a Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival and even a Golden Globe nomination. It remains one of the greatest classics of Indian cinema.

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