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An early scene in Nagraj Manjule’s Jhund presents a remarkable sight: Amitabh Bachchan walking in a cramped gully.
Over the last two decades, during the actor’s second homecoming in Bollywood, he’s mostly played affluent figures, far removed from any markers of poverty. Even in Gulabo Sitabo, a notable exception, he was under a heavy prosthetic, very evidently looking like a ‘character’.
He plays a soon-to-be-retired college football coach in Jhund, landing up in the gully by accident. This juxtaposition is so rare that it reminded me of Bollywood’s long-standing segregations post economic liberalisation. Because in the ’70s, the angry young man was the gully. That scene then also doubles up as a possibility, as his character’s name here carries distinct familiarity: Vijay (coincidentally inspired by a real-life figure of the same name).
Set in Nagpur, Jhund is pivoted on the relationship between Vijay and more than a dozen Dalit boys (all debutants). Desperate and directionless, they’re not living as much as surviving: stealing coals, bashing bullies, doing drugs. Vijay sees them one rainy afternoon playing with a plastic drum. An idea strikes him. He approaches them the next day with a football, offering them to pay Rs 500 if they play together. It soon becomes a ritual: Vijay, football, boys, Rs 500.
Those boys demand your attention: fresh faces in every way possible, bearing all the ruggedness and unfairness of life, acting with a veteran star – a rare sight again. The film’s initial segment is all about the ensemble. It is the ensemble that moves, banters, argues, fights, plays, acts.
This overcrowding is deliberate, but the film’s first 20-odd minutes spreads itself thin, appearing unfocussed and anxious.
With a runtime of nearly three hours, Jhund takes its time. But even when the plot is finding its purpose, there’s much to admire. The camera moves with palpable hunger and desperation, producing some excellent tracking shots. The humour is in the right proportion. The main character crystallises with minimal fuss: a young man named Don (Ankush Gedam). Yet around 40 minutes into the film, I caught myself asking the same question: What is at stake? What is this film about?
The haze starts to clear when Vijay proposes a match between his boys and his colleague’s players – or, as the latter says, a match between a team and a jhund. The slum and the college playground are literally separated by a wall, and it is that divide – two different lives, two different worlds, two different futures – that forms the crux of Jhund.
The disorganised bits start to align in the subsequent portions – even some initial characters, such as a local bully (Akash Thosar), who seemed like narrative padding. Humour continues to act as a binding glue. Take for instance the boys’ attire when they show up for the match: yellow pants, gaudy glares, flashy shirts, caps, bandanas, even a tie.
Manjule understands this expression of innocence, which is both endearing and poignant, for it is that innocence that the world-beyond-the-wall has snatched. Jhund sharpens its focus during the first match. The college team dominates the first half; the slum boys lack coordination, unity, focus – they argue, quarrel, and do their own thing – replicating their real-life coping mechanisms on the field.
If at all you’ve to slot Jhund, you can call it a sports drama.
But unlike many Indian films of the genre, often featuring caste Hindu protagonists (and actors), Manjule’s movie isn’t about winning a tournament or scripting a redemptive story. Because like Sarpatta Parambarai, the obstacles are many – obstacles that many won’t even consider… obstacles.
It is quite evident that football, or teambuilding, is the recurring metaphor. But it is striking that the first match doesn’t look too different from the one played in Lagaan: two sets of people so different from each other that, even while living in the same country, they hardly share anything in common. In fact, there’s a direct parallel in a scene where a scorer, working for the college, smiles when the slum boys score a goal. It makes perfect sense, as the vile Hindu caste system has slotted people in two distinct categories – the coloniser and the colonised – since eons, including, and especially, after Indian Independence.
Manjule posits a heartwarming thought: that these boys, embroiled in scuffles and drugs, are not criminals but victims. It may sound obvious but one look at the policy decisions around the world – punishing the drug addicts, the homeless, and the other marginalised people – indicate the pervasive callousness in dealing with those who have been left behind.
And it is the same warmth that informs the next subplot – a nationwide football tournament among the slum players – and the rest of the film: the best of them competing for an international tournament called Slum Soccer (which, on its own, is a great spin on the sports drama genre).
The filmmaker also debunks some pernicious misconceptions, such as the marginalised people lacking hygiene, decorum, and discipline – or that they are ‘uncivilised’. If anger underpinned Fandry, and despair bookended Sairat, then Jhund is about hope.
You may question its design – surely, it’ll take more than a sports tournament to squash the huge divide? – but the film’s simplicity and commitment is admirable. It also asks pertinent questions about the meanings of nation itself. If Fandry had a cheeky dig at the national anthem, involving a nutty pig chase, then here the question is more contemplative.
At one point, a boy asks, “Bharat matlab (‘India means’)?” It materialises as a small joke, but the implication is thunderous: that the caste system creates a nation within a nation; that it limits human potential itself, harming not just individuals but also a society, a country – that, too, is one meaning of Bharat.
Manjule examines these strands through the players about to participate in Slum Soccer – a team that truly represents India. One of them (Rinku Rajguru), living in a remote village, endures Kafkaesque-level struggles to procure a passport. One document needs another document; one approval needs another approval; one office sends her to another office – and on and on.
At one point, she crosses a board, and the camera lingers on it for a few more seconds; it reads: “Digital India”. Don doesn’t have a passport, either; the cops make sure that he won’t get one. The vicious cycle is almost always around the corner: He wants to exact revenge – an act that will throw him back to the jungle. With every spell of gloom, however, Jhund has a ray of light, including an excellent scene at the airport resolving Don’s conundrums.
But even with many merits, Jhund is considerably less powerful and memorable than Manjule’s first two films, Fandry and Sairat. Two main reasons: the runtime and Vijay’s character.
The movie suffers from considerable flab, which could have been trimmed by tighter rewrites. Besides, we’ve no idea why Vijay gravitates towards those boys. There are some hints via his impending retirement, his cold relationship with his son, but the film doesn’t dwell on them. He isn’t new to the area either, so again: why now?
Sometimes the unfocused writing expends its energy at the wrong place, leaving some portions undercooked. The boys winning against the local college team, for instance, after undergoing minimal training looks unconvincing. Later, Bachchan gives a mini speech in the court summarising the film’s themes. Since this is a hopeful drama, you get why it is significant in a socio-political context, but as pure cinema, it doesn’t work.
What does work is the excellent chemistry between Bachchan and the boys. Consider this: his acting career alone is thrice their total age, yet the film is never strained by such a huge mismatch. That is so because, under Manjule’s careful direction, Bachchan allows the boys to shine; in many sequences, he slinks into the background, avoiding any scene-chewing theatrics that comes so naturally and brilliantly to him.
This, too, is a vision for the future, a dismantling of hierarchy, including in its fold even Bollywood – one of the most unequal industries in the world. An industry, a country, fixated on ‘winning’. But it takes a Bachchan to say something to a character that is so simple and intuitive – that too in a dramatic sports piece – that doesn’t sound defeatist but triumphant, interrogating a fundamental mindset: “Har baar jeetna zaroori nahin hai [it’s not necessary to win every time].”