Cast: Nani, Shraddha Srinath, Sathyaraj
Director: Gowtam Tinnanpuri
Jersey begins with Arjun's (Nani) son, Nani following two women out of a bookstore just so he can present them with a book about his father. Notice the Manam moment where the father borrows his son's name—Nani's son is named Arjun—and gives away his name to his on-screen son? This then segues into a moment from 1986. A cricket match is taking place with Arjun in tremendous form and his girlfriend Sarah (Shraddha Srinath) cheering him on from the outside. But the actual flashback begins in the next shot, in 1996. A small home where Sarah is sleeping on the couch and Arjun and his seven-year-old son are sitting right across from her. A beautifully fleshed out contrast between the young couple in love and the married version of them. Before the film could proceed further, the title flashes by their side: Jersey. This isn't your regular sports film, it seems to suggest, and for the most part, it delivers as well.
Jersey is the story of a couple, Arjun and Sarah, and their struggle to keep their kid happy. They have been married for 10 years, and Arjun, for some reason, has given up on life. He loves his son and wife immensely, but not enough to get out of his couch. Sarah, on the other hand, doesn't have that luxury. She toils through life working in a five-star hotel, but making a movie about a woman in crisis isn't compelling enough. So we go with the man who is going to achieve something extraordinary, domestic responsibilities be damned, by refusing to quit.
Gowtam, the film's writer-director, succeeds in rooting the story—despite the cricket-filled second-half (the way the matches unfold have technique and authenticity to it)—by making it more about the father in Arjun, rather than the sportsman. He also makes sure that there are obstacles in his protagonist's path. He is 36 years old, after all. And to its credit, the film does make his physical strength a part of the plot rather than making it seem like a passing detail. His leading pair are two rather well-written characters as well—a husband who can love but can't seem to show it where it matters, and a wife who is tired of watching the person she was in love with disappear. That said, I would've loved a better written Sarah—even though a woman who slaps her husband instead of bearing it silently is a step-up—and a screenplay that properly cements the logic behind the protagonist's lie. The art and production design needs a special mention for detailing the sets and props appropriate to the time periods—except for the Holi and Hidesign handbags, that is.
The film absolutely belongs to Nani who has given a flawless performance. The episodes of him being a bad husband and, at times, a bad father are masterfully internalised—we can see regret and shame on his face, but still, his body language stays withdrawn. The badham milk scene with him and his friend is so signature-Nani that it brought back the fangirl in me who died sometime around Bhale Bhale Magadivoy. In a particularly moving scene, we find Arjun driving to a railway station after finding out that he's got selected to play Ranji cricket. Before we could contemplate all possible plot developments, we see him scream, when a train approaches the station. He just wanted enough noise to drown his excitement out. There are a few such simple yet touching moments that safely put Jersey in a league of its own.
Shraddha Srinath plays a tired and displeased wife for most of the film which makes it impossible for her to do anything but scorn. The kid who plays Nani steals the show every time he says something with purity only a child can possess. The supporting cast does a great job as well. Especially Sathyaraj's coach—instilling purpose and momentum to the screenplay—and Praveen— providing comedic relief wherever he can without it being an awkward add-on. Anirudh's music and background score get a bit unnecessary for a film that's moving without it. It's a sports film, so no matter how tense the music we know our guy is gonna hit a six. And the fact that the subtitles come when there aren't any dialogues accompanying them was a bizarre thing to happen as well.
Jersey, the film's title, is a misdirection. It brings forth a glamorous image of a cricket player—the blue jersey is the most coveted piece of clothing in our country, after all. And you think that's where the film is going. It does for a minute, but not really. For most fo its length, the film stays away from posturing and superlatives. Yes, it is about a man whose only passion in life is cricket, but his reasons to pursue it aren't as frivolous as the template suggests. To Arjun, the only jersey that matters is the one he fails to gift to his son, the jersey that starts it all. And the film ends with a recall to it that breaks even the most stone-cold of hearts. After all, human motivations are deceivingly homogenous and who won't be able to connect with a father trying to be worthy enough of his son's unconditional doting?