Director: Sameer Saxena
Writer: Biswapati Sarkar
Cast: Jitendra Kumar, Jaaved Jaaferi, Arushi Sharma
The running time of Jaadugar is 167 minutes, which is at least 70 minutes too long for a small-town film about football, magic and love (in no particular order or context). It looks like a lightweight web series – of six, 28-minute episodes – forcibly framed as a feature-length narrative. Jaadugar is directed by Sameer Saxena and written by Biswapati Sarkar, ex-TVF core creators who've branched out with their own production company, Posham Pa Pictures. Perhaps this explains why the whole thing plays out like a skit from the early 2010s, back when the internet was replete with droll send-ups to commercial Bollywood movies and tropes.
Pop culture has moved on, but Jaadugar remains rooted at that awkward intersection of low-budget parody and slice-of-life dramedy. When spectators in a stadium begin to sing an emotional song after their team loses, it's hard to tell if the moment was designed to be funny or serious. It's also hard to tell if the production value and performances are poor or if they're just deliberately tacky to evoke the B-movie sassiness of a spoof. This also isn't Jaadugar's only glaring identity problem: Where does magic and love fit into a sports film? How does football fit into the love story of a magician? Did I miss the memo on some strange heart-hat-goal metaphor? How does the audience fit into a viewing experience that's too hollow for the big screen and too dated for the small screen?
Jaadugar stars OTT star Jitendra Kumar as Meenu, a young magician who somehow finds himself in the impossibly-convoluted situation of having to reach the final of an amateur football tournament to win the hand of the girl he loves. The makers might want us to believe that this random linking of genres is intentional. That the joke is precisely this: the weak connection between three disparate coming-of-age themes. But the joke is on us when the film enters its second and third hour. Meenu is an orphan who lives with his uncle (Jaaved Jaaferi), a football coach whose only dream is to win the local trophy that eluded his late brother. When Meenu falls for an ophthalmologist named Disha (which translates to "direction" of course, because his first girlfriend was Iccha, meaning "desire"; I suspect his next would have been Jeet), her father asks him to prove his worth by winning at the game he hates. The more we wonder why, the less sense it makes. If the intent is to make the whiny Meenu realize that magic is about more than cheap stage tricks, it doesn't come through. What does come through, though, is that the father is an absurd man. Not even the line "Dil jeetne wale ko jaadugar kehte hai" (Those who win hearts are called magicians) can justify the sheer incompatibility of the film's stakes.
Jitendra Kumar has fashioned a successful career out of playing versions of himself. The advantage of his natural pitch is that it's tough to tell a good performance from a weak one. But Jaadugar is the first time Kumar looks at odds with his craft. The emotional scenes, in particular, do funny things to his face. It's like he isn't sure about whether to be casual, sincere or both at once. This is largely because the film itself isn't sure about how to bind the different men in Meenu – is he a dreamer who loves or a lover who dreams? Is he a lampooner or a doer? Is he sarcastic, bitter, restless, determined, mad or all at once? The result is a role that summons different imitations – like a series of sketches – rather than a character who's discovering different iterations of his own identity.
I'm all for making movies that are a commentary on other movies. But films like Jaadugar not only lack the sense of comic timing and touch to pull off a Mel-Brooks-esque coup, they also have no voice of their own. You start to wonder if there's anything more to the story than its stance on storytelling. Every other scene is reduced to a gag because the writing lacks the confidence to tell a fuller tale, paint a truer portrait of small-town India or create genuine emotions. The cloyingly casteless gaze of these stories aside, even the conflict here is cooked in some sort of utopian vessel. For instance, moments after a depressed character is shown jumping off a ledge, his friends waiting in the hospital fear the worst. The film dares to feel. When the doctor arrives, he takes that dramatic sigh – only to reveal that the man broke a leg, because he had drunkenly jumped off the first floor of an under-construction building. This gag is not unusual for a comedy, but the diffusion of tension speaks to the film's larger fear of confronting life.
By extension, Meenu never looks like he's really in love with Disha (Arushi Sharma); he looks like he is trying to outwit the Bollywood perception of romance. The love-at-first-sight song at a wedding he's performing magic at is an ode to old-school ballads, where the hero doesn't need more than one glance to become a "good-hearted stalker". But when he actually weaves a marriage proposal into an impromptu magic show for her at night, the film wants to be sweet and innovative. But it still ends up looking like a riff on other movie proposals. Similarly, at no point does it seem like the members of the ragtag football team care for the game; they exist purely as a send-up to the underdog sports template. Yet, the film tries to get serious about them winning the tournament; Meenu's resolutions are hastily cobbled into their journey.
Which is to say: Jaadugar's relationship with the Bollywood it loves is often lost in transition. Like that mischievous schoolboy who expresses his infatuation for a girl by making fun of her, this film is torn between teasing Hindi cinema and wanting to be (with) it. For the viewer, these mixed signals are annoying and immature. Is it a magic trick when a movie about so many things miraculously amounts to nothing?
Jaadugar is streaming on Netflix.