For Amazon and Netflix writing teams, research is a mere ingredient for making their mindless Indian masala sandwich of entertainment with extra melodrama mayonnaise and 300 grams of Amul buttering the authority.
Jhund is not a crash course for Mumbai critics to learn the nuances of caste. Nagaraj has made it for his people. It is an assertion, rather a celebration of identity. It is not a sports film alone. This time Nagaraj just uses the genre to tell us a story that has never been shown before.
Everywhere there is a tone where chak de is seen as benchmark film for sports films in India. For those, who can’t think beyond chak de should be reminded of how dated chak de’s craft is and problematic the humour and dialogues of the film are. Be it the comedy derived from caricaturish representation of Adivasi and north-eastern players. And the famous testosterone pumped ” Humari hockey me chhake nhi hotey”. But there is certain ”Jaane Bhi do yaaron” attitude of liberal elites when it comes to such films being dated. There is a sudden reductive excuse of ”but works craft wise”, “us time ke hisaab se progressive tha“. There is a beautiful motherly forgiveness for such savarna mediocrity. Suddenly the dated craft of these films are very strategically separated from it’s politics. As if aesthetics and craft are devoid of politics.
A Muslim hockey player has to prove his worth against the Islamophobs in this country. He is labelled a traitor and now has to prove himself. But there is hardly any question about why does he have to prove himself in the first place. The filmmaker does not want to dwell on the issue of Islamophobia in India while the whole problem is Islamophobia, and not sports. No one doubted his capabilities. They were plain Islamophobs. But the only way out of religious discrimination is hyper nationalism? Is it? This question has no place in a Yash Raj production starring Shahrukh Khan. It can only happen in ‘My name is Khan’ where the character is in USA and not in India. Because as Shashi Tharoor has taught us, it is a better idea to villainize the west and mobilise Indian liberals to feel better about their glorious tolerant culture. These films follow the thumb rules of mainstream Hollywood propagated screenwriting grammar like, the protagonist should be Driven Towards A Definitive Goal, Revenge or Redemption is best dramatic arc for a protagonist and the famous Make It Universal. All of these mainstream tips are consumed by industry writers and producers but they hardly understand anything about the lived truth of the oppressed. There is little space for lived truth here.
Frank Capra famously said: “There are no rules in filmmaking. Only sins. And the cardinal sin is dullness.” And Yes, Jhund is a dull film. It is extremely dull for savarna eyes because it is not universal. There is also a staunch stand towards not making it universal. In fact, there is also an effort towards pushing the Hindi audience to watch Bengali dialogues and the whole scenes of Monica (Rinku Rajguru) with her father not being subtitled. Whereas in Chak De the docile Soimoi’s language is just for punching down comic relief and when you keep your craft above the politics of your film then this is bound to happen. But for a sobo critic, keeping the dated craft above politics is a sin that can be forgiven not vice a versa. So, the critic wakes up one Saturday to find himself metamorphosed like the famous Kafka character, from a critical consumer with some cultural capital or responsibility to an innocent casteless gluten free Gully Boy and Gehraiyan fanboy. Their whole idea of criticism on the structure of a film is what 1st year screenwriting students of a film school are taught. The criticism is on par with those white critiques of the west who have hardly talked about representation in their own reviews or about caste when reviewing casteless poverty porn Slumdog Millionaire. In their criticism the casteless critics talk about not knowing where Jhund’s story is going.
In fact, Patal Lok writers would be disappointed to know that these oppressed kids are not driven towards a definitive goal. They don’t think about revenge and redemption all the time. Because their back stories are not a fuel to for sex, violence and sexual violence. Here their trauma is not the “edgy entertainment”. Ankush and friends do not want to be footballers. The rich Bhavna on the field is a person of desire and she too is not being actively persuaded to get into a relationship with him. These kids can hardly afford to care about anything but their day-to-day survival. Now, that’s a lived truth. And maybe that’s not engaging enough for the savarna viewing adjusted to dated Bollywood sports films like Chak de or Lagaan. Great storytellers are always fishing for truth. Truth is lived. It cannot be borrowed from Sid Field. Like great acting, when Truth is there, it is felt in the bone. For the savarna eye that couldn’t find anything more than wannabe Chak de and Bachchan fanboying, can we make an attempt at bringing forth a few things their otherwise highly responsive senses missed out?
For the first time I saw Ambedkar Jayanti being celebrated on screen with such colour and madness. For the first time I saw a Sikh boy dancing on Ambedkar Jayanti who probably is a Dalit himself. For the Shashi Tharoor fans, who supported the farmers’ movement and had also donated to Rana Ayub’s PM care charity, it might be a shock to know that there is rampant casteism amongst Sikhs too. Here in Jhund the kids take a moment to celebrate the opportunity itself by dressing flamboyantly or in one such scene where after other slums are invited to the college, Vijay is complaining how there is shortage of beds while one of the boys replies how he won’t go back with more beds, he’s done for today. It’s a hilarious nuance where everyone wants the tournament to happen but is everyone ready to work their ass off 24×7? deciding is not enough, these oppressed kids have to keep pushing harder to prove that they deserve whatever little they are given. Here their foggy intent is the conflict rather than an external conflict of goons like in super 30. If some woke Bollywood filmmaker had to write Jhund, they would make the Hitler (Manjule) character come back at the kids with goons and spoil the tournament to show that even the Dalit and Bahujans have casteism amongst them so this would work as an exorcism of the (non-existent) guilt of the savarna audience. They could finally sit back, relax and blame the formless ghost of casteism like they blame reservation without any accountability.
I came across a criticism from one flag bearer of film criticism on YouTube, who stated that Ankush and Bhavna’s friendship is “highly unconvincing”. But the same critic has no issue when Ranveer Singh from Gully Boy gets into an affair with Kalki’s character. In gully boy Ranveer and Kalki can have a physical affair by bonding over music but Bhavna texting Ankush anonymously and dropping Ankush to the airport because she is impressed by his football skills is “unconvincing”? Maybe he should change his name from Ankush Masram to Ankush Misra as suggested by that postman. Then his flirtation would have been slightly more convincing. There is a lot to look into one’s biases and privileges before we begin with criticism. Nagaraj does not abandon his old actors; he brings them back with greater power but their performances are not talked about. The film has a big cast of non-actors and brilliant casting with cameos at power with any tentpole film. Post interval, the pace is remarkably gutsy as the filmmaker knows it would be difficult to serve entertainment with the repetitive mundaneness of legal labyrinth. But still there are no unnecessary external conflicts manufactured, every conflict reveals more about the character and theme of the film itself.
As far as the length of the film goes, Roger Ebert once said “no good film is long enough and no bad film is short enough”. For such films, the privileged critiques lack the basic sophistication to consume the cinema of lived truth which is far away from what they have learned until now. Is there a need to check our intent and limited understanding in critiquing such stories? But the bigger question is, are we willing to learn?
Kartik Devjai, an independent filmmaker, actor and screenwriting stuFilm and dent at Television Institute of India, Pune.