Cast: Amitabh Bachchan, Abhinay Raj Singh, Ganesh Deshmukh, Vicky Kadian
Director: Nagraj Manjule
Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Walls, both literal and figurative, are everywhere in Jhund, an underdog sports movie that is way, way more than that. The powerful, pulsating and tactile three-hour film gives the established conventions of the genre a vigorous shake and transforms it into something markedly bigger than the game and the personalities it showcases.
One physical wall stands between the deprived but doughty youngsters of a Nagpur slum and a playground on a sprawling college campus adjoining their bustee. Several other walls, which are far higher and immeasurably more daunting, block their way out of their despairing, squalid lives they lead.
In the last shot of Jhund, a wall looms into view as an international flight takes off over it. This one separates the Mumbai airport from another slum area. On it is a warning that sums it all up: "Crossing the wall is strictly prohibited".
Written and directed by Nagraj Manjule, Jhund is a story of the walls that the socially marginalized run into, and are thwarted by, at every turn. The film, on its part, dismantles two pivotal mythologies that drive the dominant notions of mass entertainment in this country: one springing from the Hindu epics, the other from the dominant idioms of Indian popular cinema.
With both given a wide berth, what emerges in Jhund is a structure and a style that are embedded in the very nature of the struggle that the dispossessed are engaged in on a daily basis merely to keep heads above the water.
Jhund puts one of the biggest stars of Hindi commercial cinema front and centre and, drawing upon true events, constructs a narrative that captures a motley group of marginalized youth who, through a mix of serendipity, assertion, derring-do and action, seek to break free from the life of petty crime and drug addiction that they are condemned to due to caste discrimination, social ostracism, poverty, lack of education and domestic strife.
Amitabh Bachchan is cast as Prof. Vijay Borade, a social activist modelled on the real-life Vijay Barse, a now-retired sports teacher who, two decades ago, founded Slum Soccer, a Nagpur-based NGO that works to give slum children a new life by grooming them as footballers. Jhund fictionalizes an actual experiment that caught naysayers by surprise and yielded salutary results almost instantly. The film's plot incorporates the Homeless World Cup which, incidentally, began in 2001, the year Slum Soccer came into being.
Coincidentally, Vijay is the name of numerous fictional characters Bachchan has portrayed in a long, eventful acting career - from 1973's Zanjeer to 2011's Buddah Hoga Terra Baap. The name (Vijay) and the goal (victory) assume appreciably added significance in Jhund because they serve the very specific purpose of highlighting a battle without end that has no pat Bollywood-style conclusion.
Indeed, Jhund does not have one. It upends the Bollywood sports biopic template and uses the game of football and an altered narrative form to craft an incisive and deeply felt commentary on the reality of systemic oppression that large swathes of the Indian population have to continually endure in a policing, judicial and education system heavily loaded against them.
Adopting a pace and rhythm that buttresses the film's overall edifice, Manjule's remarkable screenplay carves out two halves that are distinct from each other in tone and emphasis. The first, with its dizzying momentum and haphazard beat, reflects the tempestuous lives of the slum boys and girls who live and die unaccounted for.
The second, with a significantly steadier and more lumbering (in a good way) approach, approximates the arduous, agonizing distance that the Dalit youngsters must traverse simply to be able to give themselves a fair shot at a better life, let alone at sustained glory.
Prof. Borade is about to retire. His son Arjun (Arjun Radhakrishnan, seen recently as APJ Abdul Kalam in the SonyLIV series Rocket Boys), who has had the advantage of a strong education, is set to leave for
Columbia University. Father and son do not see eye to eye because the former uses his frugal material resources to help the disadvantaged. The son departs for New York, leaving Prof. Borade to his own devices. By the means of the arc of the father-son relationship, Jhund depicts two opposing approaches to running and funding social campaigns and their eventual coalescence.
Borade Senior chances upon the Gaddi Godam jhopadpatti boys (and a girl or two as well) playing football with an empty plastic can. He not only senses their palpable enthusiasm for the sport but also spots sparks of talent in a handful of them. He decides to help them hone their natural abilities.
The ageing professor thus finds a post-retirement mission. To the chagrin of a class and caste-conscious younger colleague (Kishor Kadam), Vijay Borade trains the boys and girls to take on the team that represents the college that he is retiring from. The college boys are battle-ready, the slum kids are anything but. It is an unequal contest. Or is it?
A dramatic courtroom scene in Jhund does have a touch of Bollywood to it. It has Bachchan's Borade holding forth on the need to ensure a level playing field for everyone who lives on the other side of the wall, including social misfits like the cocky Ankush 'Don' Masram (a remarkably confident Ankush Gedam), who has been driven over the precipice by constant humiliation and harassment by a local hoodlum Sambhya (Sairat lead actor Akash Thosar).
The veteran actor's presence in the film is, however, shorn of starry airs. He plays a facilitator, an agent of change, rather than an active combatant in a war waged for dignity and liberation by a ragtag team of footballers drawn not just from the slum around Borade's college but also from all across India.
Although Bachchan is surrounded by largely unknown young actors - barring Chhaya Kadam (as Borade's wife) and Kishor Kadam - he does not seek to overshadow them, merging subtly with the larger canvas of the world of the slumdwellers. At least three of the other actors stand out - Ankush Gedam as the leader of the Gaddi Godam team (pejoratively called a jhund), Rajiya Kazi as Razia Bagwan (a young Muslim mother of three who walks out on her husband) and Rinku Rajguru (the Sairat lead actress who plays a Gondi girl Monika, whose biggest challenge is to earn an 'identity' for herself in the records of the government).
The script keeps the spotlight on the hot-headed Ankush, who must climb and jump over many a real and metaphoric wall as he seeks an escape route. No different are the plights of Razia and Monika, one a woman from a minority community, the other a tribal girl. They have to chip away at deeply ingrained prejudice to wrest their place under the sun. Neither sub-plot plays into the biases that Bollywood tends to perpetuate about communities.
All this unfolds post-interval, which explains why the film's second half is paced the way it is. A faster clip would have undermined the gruelling processes that these two girls and Ankush Masram must deal with in order to work their ways out of the darkness.
The camerawork by Sudhakar Reddy Yakkanti is a sight to behold especially in the first half and the background score by Saket Kanetkar is irresistibly propulsive. Sound designer Avinash Baburao Sonawane lends Jhund a steady aural backbone.
The anthemic song Laat maar (lyrics: Amitabh Bhattacharya, music: Ajay-Atul) defines Jhund to perfection. Laat maar (aim a kick) is not only targeted at a football but also at the caste system and at commercial cinema's propensity to offer easy answers. The song, which plays as part of robust Ambedkar Jayanti celebrations in Gaddi Godam and facilitates a moment that has Bachchan pay obeisance to a Babasaheb Ambedkar portrait, opens with Zamaane ki nazar mein tu bhale hi bhangaar hai/Tere bhi seene mein kahin toh angaar hai (you may be junk in the eyes of the world, but the fire burns in your heart, too).
That fire burns with varying intensity all through Jhund, which derives its strength principally from its strategy to eschew the mass-oriented, mythologized methods employed by recent Tamil caste oppression dramas (Kaala, Periyerum Perumal, Karnan, Sarpatta Parambarai, Jai Bhim, films that made their point extremely forcefully but with the aid of more demonstrative and instantly consumable means).
Jhund stays firmly in a social realist space, favouring a style that has no place for a revenge saga, a romantic tale (although a one-sided love affair is very much a part of the plot) or a rousing, sweeping finale (incidentally, the tale reaches a crowd-pleasing apogee a scene and a song before the intermission and has the steam to last an hour and a half more).
Jhund releases its coiled-up energy a joule at a time as it glides towards an airport security check sequence that constitutes the film's climax and conveys in a nutshell the plight of the powerless as well as the possibility of a game-changing pushback.