There is something about an underdog story with the backdrop of sports that is yet to lose its appeal. The passion and resilience required to master a sport in itself is reflected in the main character’s desire to tackle strife. The latest film in this vein is R Balki’s Ghoomer starring Saiyami Kher and Abhishek Bachchan.
Anina is on the way to cricketing stardom (by playing for India); her skills are bolstered by a red hot bat and her grandmother’s (Shabana Azmi) research and ‘concentration smoothies’. Her perfect bubble is occasionally rudely crashed by an alcoholic yesteryear bowler Padam Singh Sodhi (Abhishek Bachchan). Soon, a freak accident results in Anina losing her right arm and her life becomes further intertwined with Sodhi’s.
This is, give and take a few scenes, what the first half of Ghoomer presents. We see Anina’s indubitable passion for the game and it helps that lead actor Saiyami Kher has impeccable form as a batsman. Because of her own love for the sport and her experience on the pitch, she is convincing as the passionate and boisterous Anina.
Even beyond the pitch, Kher’s act is charming and her chemistry with Azmi adds an extra layer to the film. Having suffered a huge loss and under the realisation that she might never play cricket again, Anina is left heartbroken and enraged – both aspects of her grief are adequately portrayed by an expressive Kher.
In the way that it is shot and performed for the first half, Ghoomer has captured the charm of 2000s mainstream Bollywood – think Chak De! India or Dil Chahta Hai.
There is a coming-of-age quality to it even in the absence of teenage protagonists.
And yet, it is difficult to feel a connection with the story in the first half; the emotional stakes, though established, feel like they’re on a shaky foundation.
The second half picks up considerably, both in terms of screenplay and an emotional investment in the character’s journey. Once the film enters the sports montage and underdog journey territory of the sports drama genre, it’s on surer footing.
The best thing about Ghoomer is that Anina’s characterisation is never intended to be pitiful as is often the case with the representation of disability in cinema – the film never posits that her skill as a sportsperson was adversely affected by the accident. In fact, the way the film’s title ‘Ghoomer’ is incorporated is captivating.
Abhishek Bachchan as Sodhi makes for the perfect mentor archetype – after being handed the short end of the stick in life, he has become a brash recluse. He is short with everyone he meets and has never met a glass of whiskey he didn’t like. He lives alone with his extremely helpful and kind sister Rasika (Ivanka Das) who he, obviously, doesn’t treat very well.
Through Anina, however, he finally sees an opportunity to experience the euphoria of being a victor. It’s commendable that R Balki and his co-writers Rahul Sengupta and Rishi Virmani present yet another interesting take on a morally gray mentor.
Sodhi is supposed to be a smart alec and a champion of the ‘tough love’ campaign while rarely displaying moments of kindheartedness. Bachchan carries out this act well.
At the same time, a trans character in the film is seemingly indebted to Sodhi and that is somehow supposed to justify the fact that he speaks kindly to her perhaps twice in the entire film. By resigning the character to being comic relief, the film misses out the opportunity to create a movie duo with equally sharp-tongued characters living in the same space (and, of course, the added opportunity of empathetic inclusion).
In her scenes with Anina, however, the character does get to explore more nuance. And it's refreshing to see more trans actors get more mainstream space and recognition.
Despite the film’s reliance on hammy background music and slight exposition, Abhishek Bachchan is delightfully restrained in his performance. It is this intuitive restraint that elevates his character on screen.
Balki specialises in smart one-liners, something that’s supposed to give characters an edge. Here, the dialogue writing comes off juvenile in places and well-written in others – perhaps this is because a balance between the Yoda-esque preaching (and quips) and genuine human dialogue is absent for the most part.
For instance, a dialogue like ‘pyaas lag rahi hai, khelne ki pyaas’ (I have a thirst, a thirst to play) adds nothing to the film but the well-placed Roger Federer joke is delightful. Ghoomer suffers because there’s not enough attention to what could be left out – some scenes seem unnecessary and others don’t get enough screen time.
Speaking of the cast, Shabana Azmi is, as always, an absolute delight to watch on screen. She adds a quiet sensibility to her role that matches perfectly with the role her character plays in Anina’s life. She is generous with her advice but stingy with her praise; technically Anina has two mentors in the film.
Ghoomer encapsulates a phrase Master Yoda says, “Always two there are, no more, no less. A master and an apprentice.” The film, at its core, is a poignant telling of the story of a master and an apprentice, a teacher and a student, a mentor and a mentee.
It helps that Bachchan and Kher have an intense acting chemistry, playing off of each other in every screen – even if the former sometimes outshines the latter. The little details added into the way Kher reconnects with the sport, like using her understanding of momentum to add more speed to her spin, strengthen the story.
Angad Bedi as Anina’s childhood friend and partner-in-crime gets to showcase his skills much more here than he did in Lust Stories 2 and what a delight that is for all of us!
Moving to the technicalities, the camerawork is decent in the wider shots but the close ups are shoddy – the shot designs sometimes do not mesh into each other as seamlessly as they should. Crisp editing, too, would’ve made the film more watchable than it is.
However, credit where credit is due, cinematographer Vishal Sinha structures the cricket scenes beautifully. The second half is buoyed by the cricket match – there is suspense, intrigue, and a satisfying climax to the film and a character that we have come to be invested in.
With Saiyami Kher’s obvious efforts into understanding the visual language of the film and Abhishek Bachchan’s steady but effective act, Ghoomer ends up being an enjoyable watch, with its second half almost succeeding in steamrolling over the faults of the first.