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#FilmReview: The Kids Shine Bright in Amitabh Bachchan’s ‘Jhund’

To fit the Bollywood template, Nagraj Manjule has simplified the story and plotted it like all sports films where talent overcomes all hurdles

Suparna Sharma Mar 04, 2022
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Cast: Amitabh Bachchan, Ankush Gedam, Aakash Thosar, Rinku Rajguru

Direction: Nagraj Manjule

Rating: ★★★½

Playing in theatres

For a long time now, an abiding fear has accompanied the arrival of Amitabh Bachchan’s movies. We fear he will crush the film with his histrionics and hamming. And in the last two decades, this has often been true.

It is difficult to pinpoint the exact moment when he stopped playing the characters assigned to him, and decided to grace films with the screen persona of Amitabh Bachchan. A stand-up routine almost, made up of Bachchan’s distinct mannerism, posturing, and “Haain”!  

Some might point at that garbage-heap era of Ganga Jamuna Satyanash. But I’d say that this started happening consistently when the beard appeared. That’s when the actor receded and the persona of Amitabh Bachchan took over. Of course, there have been a few notable bearded exceptions — Bunty Aur Babli, Kante, Baghban, Sarkar, Kabhi Khushi…, Kabhi Alvida…, Piku, Gulabo Sitabo. In most others, however, he has just amped up his baritone and stared hard at the camera. 

There is still no other actor in India who has Bachchan’s screen presence. He is Big B even on the small screen. Many actors can command our complete attention, but very few are able to lock us with their gaze and keep us there until they decide it’s time to let us go. Bachchan has misused this power for a while now. In writer-director Nagraj Manjule’s Jhund (Crowd), we meet Bachchan the actor, and he plays the real-life sports teacher Vijay Barse with the humility and restraint the character deserves. 

He is, in fact, introduced to us with a line that has never been said to Bachchan before: “Jaane de na uncle, kya dimag ka dahi kar raha hai.” It’s a coming-of-age moment that’s comforting for the film and for us. It also made me smile.

Jhund hits the ground running. It opens with a dizzy, kinetic dash through the grimy lanes of a slum in Nagpur. Despite the oppressively claustrophobic setting, it crackles with energy as young boys and girls bound off pink and blue walls. These kids, of varying age and sizes, are tied to each other by their similarly dismal dwelling and circumstances. Some are addicted to ganja, others to glue huffing, and all move in packs to snatch a gold chain, steal a mobile phone, and settle scores.

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Manjule has written Jhund as a chronological account of the real life of football coach and mentor Vijay Barse, his students, especially Akhilesh Paul, and his Slum Soccer NGO that trains and organises tournaments for kids from “jhuggi-jhopari.” We briefly met Barse and Paul in Aamir Khan’s Satyamev Jayate in 2014. In Jhund, we are introduced to them properly.

Vijay Barse (Amitabh Bachchan), a sports teacher at a Catholic school, is on the verge of retirement. One day he watches slum kids kick around a plastic drum and he finds purpose. He lures them to play a game of football, with the promise of a Rs 500 note at the end. This goes on for a while, until they get hooked, and then he trains them. When Barse is confident, he ignores the misgivings of his school colleagues and a sulky son at home to organise a match between kids from the slum and his school’s soccer team.

Nagraj Manjule – who wrote and directed the critically acclaimed Marathi film, Fandry (2013), and followed it up with another caste-stalked love story, Sairat (2016), which remains the highest-grossing Marathi film to date – makes his Bollywood debut with Jhund. Perhaps to fit the Bollywood template, he has simplified the story and plotted it like all sports films where talent overcomes all hurdles with grit. The film has the usual highs and lows, and one seemingly irredeemable situation is thrown in for indomitable human spirit to trump all odds.

Unlike his earlier films, Jhund’s screenplay is not driven by the politics of caste and class, yet the film tells the story of lives held hostage by rigid caste and class hierarchies.

What Jhund lacks in its plot, it makes up for with its setting and casting. What it doesn’t say, it shows. 

The film’s entire cast of football-playing basti boys and girls, bar one, are kids from the slums of Nagpur who were auditioned and then trained. They give the film its street cred, raw texture and tenor, and a soul.

In the choices they make, the lives they lead, the dehumanising discrimination of caste and class are in full view. It runs along the boundary wall of an English-medium school that brushes past a slum. It’s there in the kids’ hair, bleached with ammonia and malnourishment. It’s there in their diction, their chatter and dreams. And in the scraps gathered from garbage heaps. And it is called out with gutso when the kids throw for themselves a psychedelic dance party on Ambedkar Jayanti.

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The film’s best parts are when it is with the kids, especially when they are kicking the ball around. Some are barefoot, some have tiny feet in oversized plastic chappals, and at least one has deformed feet.  

The first match in the film is comical and thrilling, and you find yourself rooting for the kids. All others that follow are strictly expository. They track the wobbly rise of the ragtag football club from state-level to national and international tournaments, and how football is changing the lives of these kids. This journey, from jhopad-patti to Brazil, is beset with all the problems you can expect. 

Jhund is most interested in the travails of two kids — Monica (Rinku Rajguru) and Ankush (Ankush Gedam) — as they run around trying to get a passport. One has a criminal record, and the other doesn’t have the required documents. Manjule stretches this segment deliberately, letting us experience the tedious, bureaucratic, frustrating process of getting a simple pehchan patra, and giving us a glimpse of the atrocities that NRC and CAA will unleash.  

Though the character of Ankush Masram (Gedam) has been written most generously, all the kids in Jhund are very good and memorable. 

Bachchan stands on the sidelines in Jhund and shines light on the kids. He doesn’t draw attention to himself nor is he over dramatic in scenes that will make you weep. For the most part, it looks like Bachchan is in awe of these bachchasJhund gets some of its emotional power from their relationship. It draws its political heft from the way it sees these kids who love playing football.

At 178-minutes long, the movie could have been cut short by at least 30 mins. But its length doesn’t dilute its emotional power or caste-class politics. 

Jhund is not the sort of film that leaves us with guilt or rage. It’s the sort of film that cleanses middle- and upper-class souls. It makes us feel good and righteous because someone else is doing something that needs to be done. But it removes a few bricks from the wall that runs between the school and the slum.  

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