Jhund review: Nagraj Popatrao Manjule serves up a narrative that sears and soars

One of the pleasures of the film is its unconventional structure – a heady, almost wilfully haphazard first half, followed by a leisurely paced and painstakingly detailed second one where the director almost revels in pulling the rug from under our feet

Shantanu Ray ChaudhuriUpdated:Saturday, March 05, 2022, 03:21 PM IST
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An international flight takes off from Mumbai with a bunch of youngsters who have been described, in an earlier scene, as ‘ganjeri ki jhund’. It’s impossible to convey the disgrace embedded in the phrase with any verisimilitude – at least for anyone who has not been at the receiving end of the epithet. ‘A horde/herd of addicts’ does not do justice to what is the quintessential othering of an entire society, a class of people. A wall comes into view as the plane flies over it. Emblazoned across the wall are the words: ‘Crossing the wall is strictly prohibited.’

The irony of Nagraj Popatrao Manjule’s powerful and disconcerting film lies in the fact that though one lot has shown the temerity to cross the wall – metaphorical as well as literal – albeit helped by someone ‘privileged’ from the other side, the warning inherent in it holds very much for all those who dare to do so in the future. Therein also lies the very real tragedy of the ‘India that is Bharat’ that Jhund holds up a mirror to.

A professor on the verge of retirement, probably looking for a more meaningful culmination to his career. A ragtag bunch of socially ostracised no-hopers in a sprawling slum condemned to a life of unimaginable deprivation, petty crime and drugs. An oppressive and unjust system that has marginalised them for aeons and is not about to give up. And in the middle of it all, the beautiful game.

Jhund has all the tropes of a classic triumph-of-the-underdog sports flick but then ends up upending the template. The film’s ‘grudge’ match – where the destitute ‘David’ prevail over the privileged ‘Goliath’ – is done away with before the halfway mark. Because that match is not the point, and the victory is anyway rather fantastical, given how shabby and ill-prepared the gang from Gaddi Godam is. Jhund’s real power comes from the way it treats the match and the victory as pure feel-good tokenism, reserving the rest of the film for an unflinching exposé of the humiliation and prejudice that the marginalised in our society have to constantly chip away at.

Based on the exploits of real-life social activist Vijay Barse who founded the NGO Slum Soccer, Jhund stars Amitabh Bachchan, as Prof. Vijay Borade, who chances upon a group of young slumdwellers playing football with a plastic can. He becomes a mentor, trying to wean the gang away from the pitfalls of life in the slums and give them a purpose. It’s quite a motley group, and in one terrific sequence, Nagraj dumps the fictional narrative to have them talk (almost to the camera) about their lives. It is one of the most affecting scenes I have seen in Hindi cinema of late.

It’s the cast playing the slumdwellers with their hardscrabble lives painted in their very gait who give the film its muscle and energy (helped in no mean manner by Saket Kanetkar’s pulsating background score, Ajay-Atul’s music and Sudhakar Yakkanti Reddy’s cinematography), without ever exoticising or sentimentalising their condition.

In a uniformly brilliant cast, Ankush Gedam stands out as Ankush ‘Don’ Masram, the volatile young man who has to find a way to channel the degradation of hundreds of years to break free of his condition. To the credit of the director, the film makes no concessions to Bachchan’s star image (barring a courtroom scene where the star espouses on the India that lives beyond Mumbai and its sports academies). Much like the viewer, Vijay Borade, albeit a catalyst for change, is a witness to the lives unfolding before him.

One of the pleasures of the film is its unconventional structure – a heady, almost wilfully haphazard first half, followed by a leisurely paced and painstakingly detailed second one where the director almost revels in pulling the rug from under our feet. Leading to the film’s incredibly potent climactic sequence where a man passing through a metal detector becomes a shorthand for the weight of history he has to throw off his back. That sequence alone would have made the film worth the while for me. That sequence alone makes up for the overlong narrative, the barely believable ‘romance’ involving ‘Don’, and the fairy-tale wish-fulfilment inherent in the aeroplane with its gang actually crossing the wall.

Title: Jhund

Cast: Amitabh Bachchan, Ankush Gedam, and others

Director: Nagraj Manjule

Where: At theatres near you

Rating: 3 and ½ stars

(Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri is an award-winning publisher, editor and a film buff)

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