The doyen with the imposing frame and the familiar baritone is called to the mic to address a crowd. He mumbles a few words and retreats into a corner.
A tongue-tied and retiring Amitabh Bachchan as a character named Vijay? Nagraj Manjule’s Jhund is all about upending expectations. The Marathi director’s first film in Hindi takes Bachchan to the slum and treats characters from the slum like movie stars.
Bachchan has played Vijay (and even “Viju”) in over 20 productions. The Vijay of Jhund modestly enters the narrative well after other angry young men (and women) have been introduced. Vijay stays there throughout as talisman rather than superman, mortal even in his saintliness, easing matters along with understated heroics.
Jhund has been inspired by Vijay Barse, a social worker from Nagpur whose non-profit organisation Slum Soccer trains disadvantaged youngsters in football. One of Bachchan’s most celebrated films, Deewar, is a reference point for the wall that stands between the slum and an elite school.
The slum residents might strut about as though in a hip-hop music video and are always quick with one-liners and comebacks. But these gully boys and girls, who steal and pilfer to survive, are going nowhere fast except perhaps to prison. Vijay’s persistence gives the ragtag group higher purpose.
To a conventional plot about the emancipatory ability of sport, Nagraj Manjule brings his customary unvarnished realism, caste concerns and empathy for marginalised Indians. The pre-interval section has the most rousing portions, which movingly capture the pathos behind the chest-forward swagger.
Even as the feisty footballers score literal and metaphorical goals in their favour, Jhund never neglects the precariousness of their impoverished lives. Cinematographer Sudhakar Yakkanti Reddy, production designers Singdha Karmahe and Pankaj Shivdas Poal, and costume designers Priyanka Gayatri Dubey and Mahananda Sagare reveal the sheer density and cheerful anarchy of the slum setting with minimal flourish and a keen eye on the rhythms of the docudrama.
Every one of the slum residents is vividly realised, whatever the length of their role. The sheer diversity in representation and energy of the mostly non-professional cast electrify even ordinary scenes.
Jhund eventually becomes the story of Don, a ponytailed small-timer with the attitude of a marquee idol. Ankush Gedam brilliantly plays Don with head and heart, taking his place as the film’s other hero.
Among those who benefit the most from connecting feet to a football are the mullet-headed motormouth Babu (Priyanshu Kshatriya), the gender-fluid Kartik (Kartik Uikey) and mother-of-three Rajiya (Rajiya Kazi). The film is a reunion of sorts for actors from Manjule’s previous films.
The cast includes Somnath Awaghade, who headlined Manjule’s searing debut Fandry (2013), and Akash Thosar and Rinku Rajguru, the star-crossed couple from Manjule’s blockbuster Sairat (2016). Thosar is nicely cast against type as a hoodlum who crosses Don’s path.
Suresh Vishwakarma, who also appeared in Sairat, has a vital cameo in Jhund. Vishwakarma’s character provides Monika (Rajguru) with a crucial piece of paper that allows her to apply for a passport. The grimly funny sequence satirises the Kafkaesque ways of Indian bureaucracy apart from underscoring the idea that every Indian counts.
As characters and events begin to crowd the screen, Jhund gets visibly unwieldy and clunky. Manjule could have said all that he wanted to say with a shorter runtime, but he indulges himself to the film’s peril. Jhund lumbers on for 178 minutes, but it didn’t have reason to.
Several noteworthy actors are wasted in walk-on parts, including Kishor Kadam and Chhaya Kadam. The romantic tension between Don and the affluent student Bhavana (Sayli Patil) barely works in a film that’s always more convincing dishing out the dirt rather than the pixie dust.
The rainbow coalition includes Dalits, Muslims and the disabled. Bachchan salutes BR Ambedkar in a scene. Vijay’s mission fulfils at least two conditions in the Dalit icon’s clarion call to his community: to educate and organise. But the third condition, to agitate, goes missing once Jhund assumes the vanilla flavour of the feel-good film.
The subversions are always more memorable than the imperative to stick to a box office-friendly template. The theme of fair representation goes all the way down to the equal weightage given to a heavyweight lead actor and a band of unknowns.
If Vijay gently lades out the heroism, Don, Babu and the rest supply the reality check that is often missing in films of this type. When Vijay eventually makes his big speech, it’s stated rather than declaimed, a plea by a film character rather than a sermon by a screen god.
Bachchan delivers one of his most relaxed and charming performances – the grace note in a rumbustious symphony staged in a football field that turns out to be a lot like Indian democracy itself.