Nagraj Manjule’s venture into the mainstream world of A-list star cinema does a lot more than it sets itself up for. The tale of an underdog sporting team would have one expecting a conventional local-game-to-tournament structure. But now that we have the intersection of caste – which is the core in Manjule’s oeuvre – the film takes many relevant detours. It decides to talk about what it actually takes for such a “jhund” (herd) to be termed a “team”, in a country that puts up the invisible wall of caste at birth.

There’s enough room for heightened masala moments in the screenplay, but Manjule chooses entropy over going down a path our audiences are already familiar with. This also does chip away from the frequency of rousing moments, but it lends a lot of heart to the proceedings. At a point he even chooses not to “stage” a moment, and lets the non-actors do their truth-spilling, capturing their talking heads with an almost documentary-like approach. While this scene could be quite jerky (especially in a film where there’s also an improbably odd romance track), it has genuine emotional weight to its presence. The scene doesn’t call attention to itself either, with Ajay-Atul going mute on the background score.

There are also many moments where Manjule wants us to observe, and doesn’t let any sort of commentary seep in from his side. Take for example how we hear the frustrations of a daughter’s father from a remote village in their native language, sans any subtitling. The travails and irony involved in the journey of these people to get themselves legally “identified” is captured as is, with no cinematic help or exaggerations. The treatment of its women is something worth noting too, with the matter-of-fact nature of its unisex football team, Rinku Rajguru’s superb cameo, and Razia’s triple-talaqing of her obnoxious husband, among many others. There’s a lot of evocative imagery too, like the casual dumping place of an affluent school’s trash, being revealed to be the literal housing facility of our protagonists.

While the director gets so much right, he does stop short of making this a rapturous journey. The film is content with being quiet for most parts. While this nature is surely affecting in smaller moments, I wish its larger, broader beats had been as rousing as the film’s soundtrack is. This reluctance might have to do with how the story is also based on a real person, Vijay Barse, a social worker from Nagpur. Amitabh Bachchan is at his expected best while portraying this calm man who holds back from overselling his earnestness.

There are a couple of secondary characters whose presence is a tad contrived. There’s Vijay Borade’s son, Arjun, whose arc of returning midway from a foreign education, is too obscure to feel for. Then there’s Jagdish, who’s saved by the sport that gives him newfound purpose in a life he was about to end himself. It’s an endearing mini-story, but it feels tad too dramatic for the zone that the rest of the film operates in.

The film does sign off with a deeply moving final scene, involving an aiport security scan. It’s the final hurdle to a character who’s been constantly spiraling into the trappings of his locality, and he’s a few steps away from his liberation, but his follies follow him until this moment. Ankush Gedam as Ankush “Don” Masram might not have the emotional depth of a professional actor, but he knows how to carry the weight of his troubles on his face. There’s palpable tension in this scene, and the release is truly overwhelming with the hug that ensues.

One could call this an attempt at middle cinema, for how it uses a stirring narrative but treats it with subdued emotions. This is an affecting watch for the same, but I still can’t surely say if it’s effective in its entirety. While I’m not enamoured by it, Jhund is easily among the most relevant sports films to come out of the country. It treats the downtrodden with dignity, and makes them look unironically cool in an organic way.


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