Director: Gowtam Tinnanuri
Writer: Gowtam Tinnanuri, Siddharth & Garima
Cast: Shahid Kapoor, Mrunal Thakur, Pankaj Kapur
Cinematographer: Anil Mehta
Editor: Navin Nooli
I was disappointed with myself at the end of Jersey. As I exited the hall, I had a lump in my throat. My eyes were glassy. Against my wishes. Against everything I knew. My head had – momentarily – been defeated by my heart. It's a complicated feeling. The only cricketing equivalent I can think of is a late-career Dhoni innings. You watch him stride to the crease, show flashes of promise, prod along, struggle to score runs, struggle more, then smash two sixes in the final over to finish with a decent overall strike-rate. The last five minutes of Jersey – like those two sixes – are glorious to watch. They make us emotional, nostalgic even. But in the larger scheme of things, those five minutes – featuring a twist – are a patch-up job. Or in sports parlance: stat padding. They lend the previous 169 minutes a deceptive sense of depth and emotional identity. Which is ironic, because those 169 minutes were in fact shaped by the right ideas. Dhoni starts out with the right intent: to work the field and take it deep. It's the execution that often becomes a problem. Fans come away with memories of those heroic sixes, but tend to forget that the match was lost long before that.
Jersey, too, starts out as a late bloomer story about a 36-year-old man who returns to professional cricket to get his 7-year-old son an Indian jersey. The protagonist of Jersey, Arjun Talwar (Shahid Kapoor), is a bitter and disgruntled family man who gives up on everything he does – cricket, a government job, and now, possibly his marriage. He was once the next big thing in Indian batting: a Kabir Singh in the world of curated chocolate boys (there's a lot of kissing and threatening too). Ten years later, he's just Kabir Singh in rehab. The plan is correct. The chase is long but potentially poignant. And it can be done: Look at Kaun Pravin Tambe?, the recent Shreyas Talpade starrer, based on an actual cricketer who made his professional debut – not comeback – at 42. The biopic accepted that its protagonist was not good enough for years, but just like him, the film grafted and persevered. Arjun is a genius with the bat, so the writing struggles to trust in his struggle. As a result, instead of committing to the difficult tale of a drifter with questions over his temperament, Jersey, with those last five minutes, provides answers that neutralize his journey in hindsight.
I get the point behind these late, desperate swings for the fence. In a country like India, it's never enough for a person to be a certain way. A reason is considered necessary. If someone is sad, it must be because they can't afford to be happy. Arjun is so naturally morose and unlikable the film does not expect the viewers to buy his comeback. So those last five minutes are designed to humanize his journey. But does the ugliness of striving need to be justified? I'd have preferred to watch the film fail while trying to succeed on its own terms – where a flaky Arjun rises for the sake of rising. Like Hrithik Roshan in Lakshya, perhaps. But Jersey tries to succeed on the brink of failing. The reason I was disappointed with myself after the film is because I was walking away with memories of that heroic last over. I had forgotten, briefly, that the match was lost long before that. To be fair, the teary reaction shot of the great Pankaj Kapur – who plays Arjun's long-time coach – did me in. The veteran actor has a limited role. But he so beautifully modulates his voice and body language across the three timelines between 1986 and 2021 – especially in those final shots – that it was hard not to imagine a better film about an assistant coach hoping to redeem himself through his maverick protege.
Jersey is a Hindi remake of writer-director Gowtam Tinnanuri's 2019 Telugu hit. The narrative foundation is strong. Arjun's glory years are set in 1980s domestic cricket. His bleak years are set a decade later, in 1996, which is a useful era to set an emotion-driven cricket film in. For one, the financial pain is real. The BCCI was not a superpower in the 1990s, and Sachin Tendulkar was yet to sign a famous 100-crore contract with Mark Mascarenhas that changed the monetary landscape of Indian cricket. While the central conflict – of a retired Ranji player needing 500 rupees to buy his son a jersey for his birthday – may seem implausible today, it is consistent with the period. That Arjun agrees to play a friendly against a visiting New Zealand team for the match fees of a princely 1000 rupees, too, is believable. What seems implausible is the fact that Arjun's wife, Vidya (Mrunal Thakur), a hotel receptionist, refuses to give him the money – to buy their little boy a gift – despite hosting a birthday party for him. I suppose she wants to teach her husband to be more responsible – but at the cost of their kid's happiness? A lot of Vidya's attitude towards Arjun feels too written. Even later, when he's setting the Ranji trophy on fire for Punjab, she never quite reads the room, telling him to quit everything and get back his government job. On paper, this unusual marriage of resentment and yearning makes sense. Her love is never in doubt, her trust is; she's worried that he will give up on them the way he gave up on his career. But on screen, thanks to the film's language of binaries (he only hits sixes and scores centuries), there is often a dissonance between his achievements and his wife's slight perspective.
Jersey has a few nice moments. Like the way Arjun's son conceals his smile during a gully cricket game, when his friends tell him his dad is in the newspaper again. Or Arjun's missed-call pining for Vidya when he's traveling with the team. Or Vidya resembling the Cadbury ad girlfriend in the stands in her introduction shot, only for Arjun to woo her with a Dairy Milk in their college days. Or even the way an unfit Arjun's runout in his first comeback match ties into the final ball of the climactic Ranji final. But these little details are the exception rather than the norm. I didn't quite buy Shahid Kapoor as Arjun. Despite a solid batting technique, his pitch feels rooted to a scale of 1 to Arjun Reddy. He has the right lines and, at times, the brooding rage. But his roles as a father, a friend, a student and a husband are too clean-cut: Compartmentalizing emotions is not the same as compartmentalizing a performance.
I want to say the cricket is filmed and choreographed well. It is, to an extent. But with the second half revolving around Arjun's miraculous Ranji Trophy season, the cricket feels like a giant blur of wickets and boundaries. There is no human aspect to Arjun's batting – he barely sweats, has the perfect follow-through, has no weaknesses, and wins matches for his team single-handedly. Despite being a 36-year-old in the age of a pint-sized 20-something phenom, his batting makes the sport look too easy…almost boring. Given that Jersey is a fictional story, a creative license is fine; it is not obligated to be credible. But cricket is about feeling and continuity, too, which this film sorely lacks. Arjun is driven to win an India cap by his son, but it rarely looks like he's enjoying the game. The robotic man-on-mission vibe wears off within a match or two.
I may sound like I'm nitpicking. But in 2022, a third Hindi cricket drama in four months can't afford to be too broad or simplistic. A web series like Inside Edge, already three seasons old, keeps raising the stakes in that space. The yardstick, therefore, keeps changing. Just as people expect more from their cricketers every subsequent year, audiences expect more from movies about cricket. Jersey, unfortunately, interprets this as more of everything: life, family, dreams, love, tragedy, sacrifice. If only more sports dramas recognize that cricket itself is life – all inclusive – and not just five minutes of it. The rest will follow. At some point, fans will remember the 78 balls of striving before the six that won the 2011 World Cup final. At some point, the name on the jersey morphs into the name off it.