Jhund Loses Itself Somewhere Between Caste And Cast

The film is very thought-provoking – but only on paper. The screen is another ballgame
Jhund Loses Itself Somewhere Between Caste And Cast

Director: Nagraj Manjule
Writer: Nagraj Manjule
Cast: Amitabh Bachchan, Kishor Kadam, Ankush Gedam, Arjun Radhakrishnan

A familiar football match concludes the first half of the 178-minute-long Jhund. The underdogs v/s the elites. It brings to mind the pre-interval game of Chak De! India, where the ragtag Indian women's hockey team take on their famous male counterparts. Sexism makes way for casteism in Sairat director Nagraj Manjule's first Hindi film: The ragtag team of Nagpur's Dalit slum teens take on their affluent college-going counterparts. It's an away game for the raw "Gaddi Godam" gang: on the other side of the fence, in manicured college grounds. The superbly choreographed match follows the same beats: they get destroyed in the first half before launching a spirited comeback in the second. The Chak De women win hearts as well as a sponsored trip to the World Cup; a single cut later, they're in Australia. The Jhund teenagers win hearts and eventually qualify for the 'Homeless World Cup' in an unnamed country – but Jhund is more concerned with the contents of that single cut. It is, in form, a sports biopic that's more concerned with the pragmatism of playing. For the India of Manjule's movies, reaching that airport is the real sport. Making the flight out is the real tournament. Recognition here is not the fruit of talent but the root of living.

Most of the second half, then, deals with the logistics of being seen rather than the trials of triumph. The best footballer is on parole after a gang war, so he faces police verification problems during the processing of his passport. A girl from rural Maharashtra learns that she needs a local identity card – an identity – before even thinking of applying for subsequent visa documents. A young Muslim mother of two is in the middle of a marital spat, so her papers are with her husband. The coach – a retired college professor – struggles to raise funds, gets mocked by politicians, puts up a kid's bail and fights a court case in between. His Vijay is no more an angry young man but a wise old man. This is not Chak De! India but Hak De, India. Escaping those margins is harder than erasing them.

This is all very thought-provoking – but only on paper. The screen is another ballgame. At no point does this translate into an engaging viewing experience. The film goes on and on and on, as if to imply: If you find it so tiring to watch, imagine how tiring it is to be them. The film has no primary narrative, which is fine in terms of depicting the plurality of caste discrimination and cultural oppression. But the result is also a disjointed, distracted and self-indulgent story that isn't half as organized as Manjule's Marathi features (Fandry, Sairat). If Jhund were a person, it would be very unhappy that it's not an octopus instead. It wants to be everywhere at once: a vignette-y sports biopic, a commercial docu-drama, an Amitabh Bachchan tribute, a City of God-style ghetto thriller, a social-message entertainer, a Gully Boy-ish origin story.

Several little films and disparate genres seem to be stitched together in an effort to mean something. You sense Manjule's vision is necessary and important – especially within the context of commercial Hindi cinema's notorious caste blindness – but the realization of those ideas lacks rhythm. Picture this: Moments after the riveting football match, we see the players crammed into the professor's living room and narrating their stories straight to the camera. Some of them break into tears. The objective is to take us out of the "cinema" of it all and remind us that these are not just non-professional actors but flesh-and-blood people. But the image of Bachchan listening to them with an extra-attentive Aamir-Khan-in-Satyamev-Jayate face just doesn't sit right. It's like the director has plonked a superstar into the setting for reach alone: If Amitabh Bachchan is learning, so can you. If Amitabh Bachchan is pondering every night and using his privilege, so can you. Towards the end, after resisting a trademark monologue at his own retirement ceremony, Professor Bachchan finally lets it rip in a courtroom. It feels inevitable. He breaks the fourth wall, looking straight into our eyes during his TL;DR speech, agonisingly asking us, "kya jeena apradh hai?".

It's almost as though the director is unclear about whether to let Bachchan take a backseat for the sake of the team – much of the first half features the man's reaction shots from the sidelines – or use him as the booming voice of the oppressed. His character, Vijay Borade, is modeled on Vijay Barse, the real-life founder of an NGO called Slum Soccer. But unlike in the similarly-themed Aarakshan or the spiritually identical Pink, this is a curiously inert performance; the veteran actor seems to be stuck in a film that's both star-struck and satisfied with his mere presence. It's tough to be Amitabh Bachchan and not steal the spotlight, so the compensatory tactic of making Vijay all subdued and mysterious feels awkward. We end up knowing very little about his motivations, life, family (wife is stoic support, Columbia-alum son is on his own Swades arc, I swear I saw a daughter too) and overall personality. What gets him so invested in this particular slum after all these years? Is a single kick in the rain enough to pique his curiosity? Is he looking for a post-retirement purpose? Why does he want to rescue them from a future of crime and drugs? Does nobody think that an old man paying 500 bucks to a teen gang everyday to "play football in front of me" is creepy? I get that Jhund, unlike Chak De, isn't about the coach. It's about the team; the coach is just a medium. But it's the casting – not so much the caste-ing – that raises questions.

I wonder if Manjule's vision has been compromised by the pressure of making a 'Bollywood' film. It would be ironic, given that Sairat's genius lay precisely in its power to fetishize the mainstream palette and reveal the caste behind the curtain. Here it's not subtext but blatant text. The camera designs entire sequences around Babasaheb Ambedkar portraits, there's an elaborate Zingaat-style slum celebration on Ambedkar Jayanti, and Jai Bhim greetings are exchanged loud and clear. The disenfranchisement feels a bit exoticized: the script derives comedy, as opposed to humour, from the attitude of the teens. They're looked at through the lens of the professor and, by extension, the average multiplex viewer – with wonder, fascination and an urge to rehabilitate. There are other narrative symptoms, too. A kid falls off the train and dies. Another is on the run from the cops after slitting his rival gang with a blade. Emotions are running high. Yet, all of this gets lost in a broad montage about a national slum football tournament, which invites "zopadpatti" players from all over the country (cue, state-wise shots) only so that they can litter the Nagpur college, invite the wrath of the upper-caste principal, and then redeem themselves by cleaning up for the sake of their professor. If this is confusing to read, imagine how disorienting it is to see. Not even an Ajay-Atul soundtrack can streamline the scattered swag.

The odd sparks of brilliance make it more frustrating. The final ten minutes are haunting, but not in the way you expect. Actors from both Fandry and Sairat appear in bit roles here, teasing a recurrence of darker themes. A blade is bought, with a character on the verge of a murderous spiral. A tragedy seems around the corner. Similarly, a rich college girl gets into a flirtatious only-glances-and-texts relationship with Ankush, the 'hero' of the lot. You expect this little sub-plot to detonate at some point, the tension mounting with each sighting. A climactic airport dash has both of them, but it isn't about love – a simple metal detector becomes a profound metaphor for self-realization. The first two films of Manjule become red herrings, subverting our perception of what it means to emerge before rising. Then there are the younger performers (especially Ankush Gedam; the only one with an arc), who do a remarkable job of being themselves in a medium that is conditioned to appropriate them. The little touches during the match – their celebrations, spats, one-liners, banter, a senile old spectator doing his best Tinnu-Anand-in-Agneepath impression – allow the film to freewheel into textural spaces.

But Jhund does not do well by them. It keeps expanding horizontally instead of growing vertically, adding instead of merging. I don't usually comment on the length of films, but at least Sairat's duration thrived on the duality of language. In expecting the audience to feel the height of the caste ladder, Jhund jumbles up its statements and meanders with unconvincing resolve. Some Hindi films, like Sardar Udham, are challenging to watch but riveting to reflect on. Others, like Gangubai Kathiawadi, are riveting to watch but hollow to reflect on. Jhund is in no man's land – largely challenging to watch and intermittently challenging to reflect on. That's not an ideal combination. Movies aren't made on paper. A scene never ends; it ceases to continue. A single cut can contain months of struggle and unglamorous striving. Yet, for all its ambition, Nagraj Manjule's Jhund feels like the unkindest cut of all.

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