Jhund’s Formulaic Hindi Film Touches Flatten Nagraj Manjule’s Voice

There are long passages that soar and yet, Jhund doesn’t match the blistering excellence of Nagraj’s earlier films
Jhund’s Formulaic Hindi Film Touches Flatten Nagraj Manjule’s Voice

Director: Nagraj Manjule
Writers: Nagraj Manjule
Cast: Amitabh Bachchan, Kishor Kadam, Ankush Gedam, Arjun Radhakrishnan
Sudhakar Reddy Yakkanti
Vaibhav Dabhade, Kutub Inamdar

Jhund is the Hindi film debut of one of Indian cinema's most invigorating filmmakers – Nagraj Popatrao Manjule. With two terrific Marathi features – Fandry and Sairat – and superb shorts such as Pavasacha Nibandh and more recently, Vaikunth in the Unpaused anthology, Nagraj has created a signature brand of searing, provocative cinema. His films confront caste and social inequity with both anger and a harrowing poetry. Case in point – the last shot of Sairat. The image of a toddler, crying, orphaned because his parents, who dared to love across caste lines have been brutally murdered, is relentlessly haunting.

With Jhund, Nagraj is aiming for wider appeal. It's the first time he's working with a star – Amitabh Bachchan. The story is less confrontational and more uplifting – though the film begins with a disclaimer that it is fiction, the narrative is loosely inspired by the life of Vijay Barse, the founder of Slum Soccer. Jhund is the story of how Vijay changes the lives of Dalit youngsters in a Nagpur slum by getting them hooked on football. The sport slowly weans them away from criminality, drugs, violence and gives them hope of a better tomorrow.

It's a rousing tale told with a stellar cast of professional and non-professional actors. You will recognize many faces from Sairat here including Akash Thosar, Rinku Rajguru, Tanaji Galgunde and Suresh Vishwakarma. But the stand-outs are the non-pros – Ankush Gedam as Ankush Masram, also called Don, Babu Kshatriya, Yogesh Uikey, Kartik Uikey. These actors aren't acting. They are being. Their performances are entirely unvarnished. There is a rawness in their craft and a guilelessness on their faces that makes their characters' hardscrabble lives even more affecting.

There is a terrific scene in which Vijay is just sitting in his living room with his rag-tag team and talking. Babu says casually that this is the first time anyone has shown any interest in their lives. He says but without any visible rancour, 'kissi ne nahin poocha tu kaisa hai'. It's a sentiment repeated in the title song 'Aaya ye Jhund hai', written by Ajay-Atul. The lyrics are: 'Hum ko duniya ne roz dekha hai; phir bhi andekha jhund hai.' Vijay and football give them the rare moment when they feel seen.

Nagraj has a great talent for seeing marginalised characters. His frames offer a bottom-up exploration of these lives, from the tiny shanties, framed from overhead in drone shots, to the flamboyant, coloured hair that seems like an assertion and call for attention in an indifferent world. There are several scenes here that have poetry and power – Don and his crew's frustration, fury and self-destructive streak is tragically palpable.

There is a heartbreaking long shot in which Don is sitting alone in a large, cavernous, abandoned godown weeping loudly because his life has hit a dead-end. This is a young man hobbled by a crippling lack of opportunity and a system designed to keep him in his place. A wall emphasising the class divide stands between the slum and the outside world. Don and his friends must overcome this literal wall and the metaphorical ones on a daily basis. Nagraj's storytelling is greatly enhanced by Ajay-Atul's furious, pulsating music. 'Aaya ye jhund hai' and 'Laat Maar' are a raucous war cry.

There are long passages that soar and yet, Jhund doesn't match the blistering excellence of Nagraj's earlier films. For starters, there is the nearly three-hour run time. Sairat also clocked in at two-hours, fifty-four minutes but Nagraj exerting a masterly grip on the narrative, never allowed our attention to wander. Here his focus seems to be scattered. The screenplay juggles between establishing too many characters who inevitably suffer from sketchy writing – there is a young Muslim wife and mother who loves to play football; Vijay's son who is at first annoyed by his father's generosity but then has a change of heart; a security guard who turns out to be a solid player.

Intriguingly, despite the bladder-bursting duration, the film doesn't seem to have the time to pause enough to let us soak in emotions or events. A character dies – this bit is wonderfully staged – but the story quickly moves to the next scene. Of course, life in these mean streets is nasty, brutish and short but the screenplay doesn't allow the audience to fully process the tragedy of this. Some of the character arcs are overtly simplistic – one man's life is literally saved by football. The sport helps him to stave off his suicidal tendencies but again we have little sense of who he is or what has brought him to this point. There's also a highly unconvincing flirtation between Don and a girl who comes to college in a Mercedes.

These formulaic Hindi film touches flatten out Nagraj's distinctive voice. Jhund also struggles to blend in the towering persona of Amitabh Bachchan into its more documentary-style aesthetic. Nagraj and his terrific DOP Sudhakar Reddy Yakkanti, are going for gritty realism and Mr. Bachchan, despite his tempered, genial, avuncular presence, remains larger-than-life. Jhund suffers from this clash of tonality. The actor is also saddled with some of the film's most banal lines like 'Janam se koi apradhi nahin hota' or 'yeh bacche jeene ke liye sangarsh kar rahe hain'.

Jhund is an unwieldy film but it's not a forgettable one. Take the track of Rinku, who plays a village girl without any identification who must somehow get a passport made. The rounds that she does with her father, going from one place to another, to somehow prove herself a legitimate citizen, is Kafkaesque, darkly funny and awful. At one point, her father exclaims: 'aadmi ki koi keemat hi nahin'.

It's these moments of tough truth that give the film its power. You can see Jhund at a theatre near you. Don't forget to wear a mask.

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