Director: Gowtam Tinnanuri
Writer: Gowtam Tinnanuri, Siddharth & Garima
Cast: Shahid Kapoor, Mrunal Thakur, Pankaj Kapur
Cinematographer: Anil Mehta
Editor: Navin Nooli
As I watched Jersey, I wondered if OTT platforms had rendered the frame-to-frame remake obsolete. In 2019, writer-director Gowtam Tinnanuri made Jersey, a rousing saga about a failing, frustrated Ranji cricket player who makes a comeback at the age of 36. The story moves back and forth from 1985-86 to a decade later and we see two distinct versions of Arjun – the brash, flamboyant cricketer whose signature move is stretching his hand out with the bat and rotating his shoulder. And the defeated, aimless, washout who has been suspended from his government job. The star athlete now dulls his anguish with cigarettes and the company of deadbeat friends.
Nani, who plays Arjun in the Telugu film, is superb. He nails the spectacular highs and abject lows of Arjun's life. Jersey is a three-hankie weeper with child artist Ronit Kamra, who plays Arjun's seven-year-old son, dialling up the emotions with his dimpled smile and innocence. He reminded me of Jugal Hansraj in Masoom – his face is enough to make you want to hug and protect him. Jersey won two National Awards – one for best editing and one for best film in Telugu.
Which brings me back to my original question – why did we need a retread? Jersey, the Hindi version, is also directed by Gowtam. But he doesn't enlarge or significantly alter the story. He merely transplants it from Hyderabad to Chandigarh. The original and the remake are almost identical, including dialogue, situations and even frames – like the aerial shot of Arjun at the interval, declaring his intention to play cricket again and stepping out into the cricket field. The relocation of city, language and culture isn't explored in any deeper way. Punjabi colloquialisms like mai ave and chak de phattey are sprinkled throughout. There is a line about Daler Paaji ke gaane but the Punjabification of the narrative is largely superficial. There is little sense of a story rooted in that soil.
Shahid Kapoor's last release, Kabir Singh, was also a nearly frame-to-frame remake of a Telugu film, Arjun Reddy. But there, director Sandeep Reddy Vanga managed to effectively translate the disturbingly sexist but seductive love story of a damaged man. Jersey is more like a xerox copy – exactly the same as the original but with less colour, vibrancy and soul.
Which stems more from the generic storytelling and less from Shahid's lack of trying. The actor does a fine job. Gowtam brings Ronit back as Arjun's son, perhaps hoping for a replay of the earlier magic. Shahid's scenes with the child actor are some of the best in the film. The father-son story is what gives this underdog sports story its beating heart. There is a lovely scene in which Kittu first watches his father play and does a bowing-down gesture from the stands. Later in the film, when Arjun asks him whether he should continue to play, Kittu says he should and adds that when his father is on the field, he looks like a hero to him. Arjun's cricket becomes his path to redemption, especially in the awestruck eyes of his son.
There is also the pleasure of the other father-son pairing – watching Shahid work with Pankaj Kapur, who plays coach Bali, Arjun's biggest cheerleader. Pankaj is a veteran of the less-is-more school of acting and his sheer presence saves the character from becoming a supportive coach cliché. Mrunal Thakur is Vidya, Arjun's wife, who is struggling to understand the man Arjun has become. This is the least convincing character in both films. Despite Arjun's success, she staunchly opposes his return to cricket – she dismisses it as an impractical dream. Why? Playing cricket gives Arjun a sense of purpose – it feels inconsistent that her character, who starts out as a fangirl, can't see that. The film also suffers from a sense of déjà vu. The cricket matches will take you back to '83. Like in that film, here too, a windshield breaks because Arjun knocks a ball that far. But Anirudh Ravichander's background score and Sachet-Parampara's songs, especially Maiyya Mainu and Mehram, help to heighten the drama and lift the storytelling.
The second half is stuffed with match sequences as the Punjab team moves up the Ranji Trophy table and soon enough, these become eye-glazing. The matches are accompanied by commentary which insists that tension is building, that there is tremendous pressure at the moment, that this is a nail-biting finale and that there are goosebumps everywhere but we as spectators, feel little of it. Thankfully, the emotional drama is heightened and the twist at the end, about what happened to Arjun, will make you tear up.
Especially if you are unfamiliar with the original. It's very likely that if you haven't seen that, this one will work better for you. But for admirers of Nani's Jersey like me, this Jersey isn't fresh or invigorating enough. You can watch the film at a theatre near you.