Director: R. Balki
Writers: R. Balki, Rahul Sengupta, Rishi Virmani
Cast: Saiyami Kher, Abhishek Bachchan, Shabana Azmi, Angad Bedi
Duration: 135 minutes
Available in: Theatres
When you hear the word “ghoomer”, you probably think of Deepika Padukone, resplendent in red, performing the traditional Rajasthani folk dance in Padmaavat (2018). But in writer-director R. Balki’s new film, the word refers to a bowling delivery in which the one-armed Anina (Saiyami Kher) specialises. She first does a circle and then flings the ball, which gives her incredible speed and which also throws off the batter. It’s Anina’s winning move, taught to her by her alcoholic coach Paddy (Abhishek Bachchan). Paddy was once an India level player himself but now, he’s such a washed-up wreck that in a few scenes, we see him lying face down, drunk, on the floor.
This story is fiction, but the idea of a one-armed bowler is inspired by the Hungarian shooter Karoly Takacs, who was only the third ever athlete with a physical disability to compete in the Olympic Games. After his right hand was seriously injured, Karoly trained with his left and won two Olympic golds. Ghoomer also references cricketer Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi, who despite being blind in one eye, captained the Indian cricket team. I don’t know enough about the game to tell you whether Anina’s incredible transformation is possible, but what is a sports film without a miracle?
The most striking part of Ghoomer is Balki’s staging of Anina’s accident. She’s a rising cricket star and then in one night, her dream is shattered. What happens is horrific and the scenes afterwards capture the anguish and the enormity of the tragedy. In one scene, Shabana Azmi, playing Anina’s grandmother and her biggest cheerleader, sits in silence by her bed. Her expression says it all. In another, Anina angrily pushes away her boyfriend Jeet (Angad Bedi) because she can’t bear the idea that he might be feeling sorry for her. Saiyami Kher is terrific here – she is like a ball of hurt. As is Azmi, who exudes warmth and wisdom. She has an unerring ability to nail so many emotions with one look. Bedi is also lovely as Jeet, a man who isn’t afraid of being upstaged by the woman he loves.
Balki and his co-writers, Rahul Sengupta and Rishi Virmani, have also written a compelling character for Abhishek Bachchan who plays Paddy. The has-been player who reclaims his glory by mentoring other players to victory against incredible odds is a movie cliché. In Hindi cinema, it was done best by Shimit Amin and Shah Rukh Khan in Chak De! India (2007). But Balki gives Paddy a mean edge which is intriguing. Paddy can be awful. He’s abusive and insulting to everyone around him including Rasika, his house help and rakhi sister. Rasika is a transwoman who Paddy has supported and enabled. The function of her character is to show that underneath the acerbic exterior, Paddy is a generous, good man, but Rasika is written with such little depth that she comes off as a woke checkbox that the film is ticking rather than a flesh and blood person.
But Abhishek Bachchan goes the whole hog with Paddy. The actor lets go of vanity and trying to be likeable. Paddy is, as Jeet says, a psychopath, but he’s only hurting others because he’s so wounded himself. Bachchan dons Paddy’s misery and frustration with elegance, but Paddy needed more layering. Balki gives him a monologue in which Paddy expounds on logic and magic, and it gives us an insight into why he behaves the way he does, but the psychology is superficial. Also, the ending twist undermines what’s gone before. I can’t reveal more but it made me question everything that Paddy has done for Anina.
Ghoomer brims with sincerity and effort. Especially Kher’s work – she has a unique beauty and even when the plot gets fantastical – Anina’s return to the Indian team is remarkably easy – Kher stays convincing. Yet, Ghoomer never becomes memorable because the film is too formulaic. The underdog sports story has now been done to death by Bollywood. And the elements that make this one stand apart aren’t explored with enough precision. The second half especially becomes a slog as we get a long stretch of a cricket match in which, of course, winning finally rests on Anina’s one arm and her ghoomer. Amitabh Bachchan appears here as a commentator and he is of course, every inch, a legend, but it feels like Balki is using him to push us to feel emotions that the script doesn’t organically elicit in us.
Still, in the last few minutes, the match comes to life and culminates into a crescendo. Ghoomer needed more rousing moments like that.