A man stands on the train tracks, in the path of an oncoming train. He is disheveled and frail, probably in his twenties but seems to be done with life. We are preparing for suicide on the train. At the last moment, he jumps to safety. As he catches his breath, he hears the commentary of a football match. He climbs the wall – there’s always a wall in jhund— and joined the spectators. He overhears a team talking about a missing goalie. And just like that, he’s in front of goal, making a save.
Sport is not life jhund, it’s a lifesaver. Over and over again, the film reminds us: this is what is at stake, this is the meaning of acting. On the one hand, there is the same difficult life, but with a little self-respect and cheers; on the other, disappointment, incarceration, even death. Most Hindi sports films are devoted to the glory of the school, the nation, the struggle of the talented underdog. jhund talks about the barriers erected by caste and the efforts that those without privilege must make to overcome them. The fact that it tells a difficult story with color, humor and style more than justifies the hopes placed in Nagraj Manjule’s Hindi debut.
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It is an indication of where his gaze will be focused which jhund does not start with Vijay (Amitabh Bachchan). Instead, in a beautiful opening montage with an Ajay-Atul theme that splits the difference between Ennio Morricone and AR Rahman, we are introduced to the youth of Gaddi Godam, a Nagpur slum, snatching jewellery, roaming the neighborhood, get high. Bachchan doesn’t even get an ‘entrance’ scene: instead, Don (the charismatic Ankush Gedam), fleeing upper-caste bullies, turns a corner and runs into him. It’s a tongue-in-cheek nudge from Manjule – for caste to make it into a mainstream Hindi movie, she literally has to crash the party.
Vijay, a teacher at a local school, is intrigued by Don and his crafty friends. When he sees them playing football in the rain with an empty cartridge, something clicks. The next day he shows up with a ball and offers them five hundred rupees if they want to play amongst themselves. He does the same the next day, and until they stop waiting to get paid but want to keep playing. As their skills increase, Vijay organizes a game with the school team. Symbolically, the jhund does not enter through the front door – where their friends are denied entry – but by climbing the wall. They are dressed to the nines: sunglasses, suspenders, caps, boots, a declaration of pride before an inevitable defeat.
Manjule has fun staging the game – my favorite detail is the delighted viewer in a floral shirt of the kind Bachchan might have worn in the 70s – but it’s really made resonant with what comes later. Vijay’s team sits in his living room and one by one they start talking about their lives. Although the atmosphere is camaraderie, the stories are disturbing and sad, and everyone is in tears at the end. This scene could easily have been inserted before the match, to reinforce its emotional impact. But Manjule knows it’s too easy, too typically sporty.
As sairat, jhund is a film of two contrasting halves. Another director may be done with the school game, but Manjule continues to expand the reach, as Vijay tries to send his proteges and others like them across the country to a world football tournament slums. While this sacrifices the film’s focus, it gradually helps reveal a vast broken system. A subplot involves Rinku Rajguru’s tribal daughter being unable to apply for a passport until she produces proof of identity, which her family does not have (there is a pointed reference to the citizenship campaign ruinous government). Their search for something so basic involves luck and a few good turns. Manjule isn’t known for giving his characters a hard time. here at least, it puts those in power in a position where they can do the right thing.
Bachchan is at his sweetest, a Vijay quietly determined to match the many explosives he has played. There is a concession to the audience: a grand speech he delivers in court. What is curious is that during jhund absolutely benefits from Bachchan’s presence, it’s not hard to imagine the film starring another actor. However, it is unlikely that the film could have been made, in Hindi and on this scale, without his participation. It’s not Vijay’s movie, it’s Don, Baba, Razia and all the other young people. But, crucially, it could also be Bachchan’s.
There really is nothing in recent Hindi cinema like jhund. The grammar used here is found rather in other cinemas in the Indian language: Marathi (Manjule’s Fandry and sairat), Tamil (Kala, Pariyerum Perumal, Karnan, Sarpatta Parambarai), Malayalam (Kammatipadam) and others. It’s not just that these films concern themselves with the realities of caste and the rural and urban poor. They also seem more agile, adventurous and sensitive to the world around them. Several times in the film, Vijay uses the word zariya: sport as a way to have a better life. In his inflexible but euphoric way, jhund shows the way to a busier Hindi cinema.
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