Review: Amitabh Bachchan's 'Jhund' Is Not a Regular Underdog Story
'Jhund', starring Amitabh Bachchan, released theatrically on 4 March.
Written and directed by Nagraj Manjule, Jhund is based on the life of Vijay Barse. A retired sports teacher, Barse founded an NGO called Slum Soccer to rehabilitate street kids and keep them off drugs and crime.
The setting is Nagpur and Manjule doesn’t waste much time throwing us into the lives of the “jhund” straight off. We see a bunch of scrawny teenagers bustling around. Their reedy voices making the atmosphere throb.
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There isn’t much context and Manjule leaves us to discover the “jhund” on our own until from the street kids a cast gradually emerges who we begin to feel deeply for. Our first instance is to label them. Chain snatchers, rag pickers? Petty criminals? Druggies? Their hardscrabble lives and the labyrinth of problems surrounding them make us want to categorize them as the “other”.
There is an actual wall too that makes the divide literal. A wall can’t contain them as we slowly realize but segregates them for sure.
The one to see potential in them is Vijay Borade sir (Amitabh Bachchan), a well-respected senior teacher on the verge of retirement who uses ingenious tricks to get them to play football.
Sudhakar Yakkanti Reddy’s tactile cinematography, Saket Kanetkar’s brilliant background score along with Ajay Atul’s rousing music weave a tapestry that’s arresting and engaging. The beats seem familiar. One can sense the direction we are headed towards as the underdogs are poised for a win that we all are rooting for.
The “saviour” we find in Amitabh Bachchan’s congenial presence assures us that we are in familiar territory and just then Manjule pulls the carpet from under our collective feet. We don’t see the expected celebrations, the tears of joy or a victory lap because after drawing us in the makers astutely and masterfully steer our attention and nudge us to look beyond the usual.
A significant scene right after the big match before the interval is a visible tone shift where the street kids just talk their hearts out…sharing their insecurities and dreams.
Verisimilitude is evident in the organic ways of so many of the actors who seem to have been picked from the slums. It’s the camera the kids open up to.
We take it all in, as does Borade sir. It’s one of the most perceptive and moving scenes in the film and Manjule’s refusal to let Bachchan be hobbled by his own stardom makes it even more poignant.
Moments are not crafted to spotlight him, the kids remain the hero and their plight takes center-stage.
Post interval we see a complete gear shift and while it may not be palatable to those used to the usual Bollywood fare we get a more insightful, deep look at what the “gap” really is. Nagraj Manjule isn’t just showing us the class and caste divide by rendering the boundary wall inconsequential but also breaks the template of the formula underdog sports film.
The unexpected humor which follows when one of the players from a remote town in Maharashtra must scout for “papers” to get a passport. An important reminder that the win isn’t just victory in a match but the distance they must cover which appears almost insurmountable.
The burden of historical trauma becomes an imperceptible presence and by forgrounding Ambedkar’s pictures and statues, Manjule doesn’t shy away from the politics and an indictmemnt of the socio-economic order without once resorting to polemics.
The film is further bolstered by the outstanding performaces by the cast, Rinku Rajguru and Akash Thosar who we instantly recognise.
Ankush Masram is played by astonishing brilliance by Ankush Gedam who has the uncanny ability to disappear naturally into the ranks of hundreds of young men and women who live and die on the streets.
Jhund is special for its determined eagerness to not please and to not treat Bachchan as the star. The veteran actor radiates warmth and a deep sense of humanity, making no concessions to commercial filmmaking.
Earthy and unpretentious it has the unforced, unhurried reality of a documentary and the emotional power of great drama. Expect a story soaked in realism with a lack of concessions to mainstream contrivances.
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