‘Patna Shuklla’ review: Raveena Tandon carries a heavy role and a middling film with graceful lightness

Patna Shuklla is a courtroom drama that traces its ancestry to, among others, director Hansal Mehta’s 2010 film, Shahid, Arshad Warsi and Akshay Kumar’s Jolly LLBs, Richa Chaddha-starrer Section 375, and to last year’s Sirf Ek Bandaa Kaafi Hai (in which Manoj Bajpayee played real-life lawyer P.C. Solanki who represented Asaram Bapu’s underage victim and fought for justice despite immense pressure and threats).

All these films are about small-time lawyers getting the case of their life, and how they rise to the occasion and shine. But at their core, these films are about one woman’s, or a man’s, moral courage to stand up against all odds and the many powers that be. Director Vivek Budakoti’s Patna Shuklla is just that — a film about one woman’s gentle determination to get justice for her client.

The film credits three writers — Vivek Budakoti, Sammeer Arora and Farid Khan —yet its screenplay is klutzy, the plot is predictable and its lead character is beset with so much goody-goody, cliched stuff about the ideal mummy, the ideal wife and an adarsh woman that it suffocates the lawyer, not letting her breathe.

Thankfully, the film has a talented ensemble of actors and it’s to their credit — especially Raveena Tandon, (late) Satish Kaushik and Chandan Roy Sanyal — that they add warmth, sparkle and some joy to an otherwise dull film.

Patna Shuklla begins on a homely note. We are at the house of Tanvi Shuklla (Raveena Tandon), in Patna, Bihar, and go from her kitchen to the dining room to the bedroom as she rushes about serving breakfast to her son, handing her husband his shirt, and instructing the cook. Dressed in a court-appropriate white-and-black saree, she gets on her scooty to race behind her son’s school bus, carrying the lunch box he’s forgotten, before heading to court.

There too she plays the role of a nurturer. After setting her table, she takes out boxes of ladoos and hands them around, including to Judge Arun (Satish Kaushik), who comments that he considers her a better cook than a lawyer.

Tanvi wilts a bit, but soldiers on, fighting a laughable case in his court that involves an undergarment and an unscrupulous tailor. She wins, and in the evening excitedly tells her husband (played by Manav Vij) that they should go out to celebrate. His response, like Judge Arun’s, makes her wilt a bit more, but again she soldiers on, this time in the kitchen.

Since we are familiar with the craft of courtroom dramas, we know that from all this ash of humiliation and disappointment, Tanvi will rise, phoenix-like. That moment comes when Rinki Kumari (Anushka Kaushik), a college student, approaches her, saying she has been cheated of her future and wants to sue her college.

The case is simple enough. A BSc student, Rinki is the daughter of a rickshaw puller who claims that she should have got 60 per cent marks in her finals, but has failed. She suspects negligence or foul play that her apathetic college is uninterested in rectifying despite her repeated requests.

Tanvi takes up Rinki’s case and finds herself facing off with a big-time lawyer, Neelkanth Mishra (Chandan Roy Sanyal). His instructions are to get the case quashed. This is the beginning of the David Vs Goliath story, and we sense that something is amiss.

Pressure on Tanvi mounts, a creepy politician (played by Jatin Goswami) tries to intimidate her, and we finally begin to understand the scam and what’s at stake.

Threats are carried out, dark secrets and fragility of the men around Tanvi are revealed, but Tanvi, gently dogged and determined, continues to fight for Rinki.

Patna Shuklla’s screenplay weaves in a lot of contemporary, familiar politics about Beti Padhao, gifting cycles to school-going girls, bulldozers and demolitions. It creates a real, believable world in which Tanvi and Rinki’s fight for justice feels daunting, even a self-harming, reckless move. Yet that is where the film’s power lies — in the empowering courage of one against the disempowering might of many rich, well-connected VVIPs.

Director Vivek Budakoti doesn’t go for much melodrama, but he doesn’t go for human drama either, often wasting scenes that could have added heft to the film and made it stand out.

Chandan Roy Sanyal is an excellent actor who can make the screen sparkle. Though the screenplay doesn’t give him much to play with, he brings panache to Justice Arun’s humble court, and is a worthy opponent for Tanvi to beat. Her victory in the end is sweet because Sanyal is so sharp and good.

Vidhi Gupta, the star of Crash Course series, has a small, meagre role here, yet she makes it memorable.

Patna Shuklla is reportedly the last film that Satish Kaushik, who passed away in March last year, shot. The film’s last scene, in which the camera captures him walking away, is very poignant and brought tears to my eyes.

Patna Shuklla’s star is Raveena Tandon. The film sees and treats her character, Tanvi Shuklla, as a super mom, a super caring wife, annapurna to the world at large and a scooty-riding advocate in a lower court on whose moral strength rests the relevance of the criminal judicial system.

This is the patriarchal imagination of an ideal woman with eight arms, carrying a tiffin box, an ironed shirt, a serving spoon, a broom, boxes of ladoos and a copy of the Code of Criminal Procedure, while her other two hands are on the handle of a scooty made me cringe.

Why must female characters, who are supposed to be real, be framed as impossible fantasies? Why can’t a lead female character be complete and perfect without all this burden?

What’s worse is that the film can’t stay and applaud Tanvi in her big moment of victory. It doesn’t let her or us savour that moment, preferring to acknowledge it with a half smile and then quickly returning her to domesticity.

This discomfort of allowing women to enjoy their moment of triumph, of watching them enjoy it, undermines Patna Shuklla’s main character, drags the film down, and does injustice to Raveena and to us.

Despite that, a luminous Raveena Tandon carries the burden of a heavy role and a clumsy film with graceful lightness.

Movie: Patna Shuklla

Cast: Raveena Tandon, Chandan Roy Sanyal, Satish Kaushik, Anushka Kaushik, Manav Vij, Jatin Goswami

Direction: Vivek Budakoti

Streaming on: Disney+Hotstar

Rating: 2.5/5