Once upon a time in Neemuch, there was a great footballer named Shrikant Dabholkar. His statue has a pride of place in the town. A tournament named after him is the biggest event in the calendar.

Coach Pradeep has been attempting to lift the Shrikant Dabholkar trophy for years. But it doesn’t helps that his team comprises players who can barely connect foot to ball.

Pradeep (Javed Jafferi) is as dauntless as he is thick-skinned. Another tournament is round the corner. Pradeep manages to rally the troops (it requires some emotional blackmail). He’s keen to have his nephew Meenu (Jitendra Kumar) on the team.

But Meenu is highly distracted. He’s fallen in love again, this time with Disha (Arushi Sharma). He’s determined to make this one work. Short of lassoing Disha with a mangalsutra, Meenu tries every trick in the rulebook.

Meenu also happens to be a magician, who aspires to be like his hero Chhabra (Manoj Joshi). If one eye is on Disha, the other is directed on Chabbra’s prestidigitation showpiece.

The leisurely paced 167-minute film tries to be equal parts sports comedy, a coming-of-age drama and a love story. But in a concoction like this, the chances of only one of the flavours standing out are very high.

Written by The Viral Fever alumni Biswapati Sarkar and Sameer Saxena and directed by Saxena, the Netflix release is at its entertaining best when it’s in and around the football field.

The romance subplot works hard to burnish Jitendra Kumar’s leading man credentials. It involves Meenu piling on heavily to Disha in a manner that, if we are being charitable, could be called cute and, if we are being honest, is actually creepy.

Disha has replaced Meenu’s ex Iccha (Rukhsar Dhillon). A joke about desire giving way to direction duly follows. Meenu’s wooing takes up one-third of the film and sets off alarm bells the creators are unable to stifle. It’s a relief when the film returns to the football team.

Arushi Sharma in Jaadugar. Courtesy Posham Pa Pictures/Chalkboard Entertainment/Netflix.

With members ranging from a silver-haired librarian (Imran Rasheed) to a foppish insurance agent (Raj Qushal) and two similar-looking men named Prashant (Nandkishor Chikhale and Ganesh Deokar), the players who compete for the Shrikant Dabholkar tournament are the real magicians of Jaadugar.

This team has a solo female player (Raksha Panwwar) and its own version of Kachra from Lagaan in the form of Riju (Shoan Zagade). Director Sameer Saxena plays a doctor named Doshi, who forms a hilarious commentating twosome with Nema (Rajiv Nema Indori).

Hopeless on the field and barely united off it, the teammates represent an all-too-familiar gully football vibe. Pradeep, played with just the right amount of earnestness by Javed Jafferi, treats a neighbourhood contest like the World Cup and works himself into a lather trying to get his team to perform. Jafferi also has a lovely scene in which he confronts the possibility that he is simply not good enough.

The film hits its stride when the tournament gets underway. Every cutaway to Meenu’s increasingly convoluted love life and his sleight of hand takes away from the real show: ordinary people trying to be extraordinary, kicking a ball any which way.

Jitendra Kumar does an admirable job of portraying a reptilian-blooded character who can’t see beyond his nose. Kumar’s reputation rests on playing a crotchety everyman who resists, sometimes unsuccessfully, situations that aren’t of his making. Meenu is far more in control than Kumar’s other characters. But it’s hard to shake off the feeling that Meenu has wandered into adulthood without quite understanding how he got there.

That the poorly sketched Disha should even begin to take Meenu seriously is presumably part of the suspension of disbelief involved in magic. Jaadugar seems keen to avoid being another film about an underdog team that aims for glory. Yet, it’s the formula that wins, and the football that sticks.

Jaadugar (2022).

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