Only a man who has Mera Baap Chor Hai tattooed on his wrist in his childhood can understand where the adolescent anguish of ‘Gutter Ki Naali Se, Public Ki Gaali Se, Raaste Pe Aaya Yeh Jhund Hai‘ is coming from.
In Jhund, Amitabh Bachchan leads a ragtag team of underdogs to victory. He IS Vijay after all. And writer-film-maker Nagraj Popatrao Manjule magnificently manifests his fanboy nostalgia towards Bachchan’s zeitgeist alter ego and anger into a winsome movement championing the cause of football-playing slum kids.
One of the director’s favourite films of the superstar, Satte Pe Satta, is a subconscious role model for its many crowd-pleasing moments. Quite like the driving force behind the sibling pack of Satte Pe Satta, Bachchan takes charge of an unruly bunch and their ‘chain kuli ki main kuli ki chain‘ frenzy. When offered ‘daru‘ he blushingly declines and says he’s quit drinking — ‘kharaab hai‘, evoking his iconic ‘daru peene se liver kharab ho jaata hai‘ drunken scene. He wears the same disappointed look when the motley crew let him down, prompting them to straighten their act. His emotional appeal before the judge to give delinquents a chance is no different from the mawkish excuse he makes for his roguish brothers before Hema Malini. A jhopadpatti brat goes by Babu as though Manjule is doffing his hat at the green-eyed doppelganger of Bachchan’s in Satte Pe Satta.
Manjule’s film-making aesthetic is rooted in real and never once minces words on the subject of caste and its disturbing foothold on society. Be it Fandry, Sairat or the recent Amazon anthology Unpaused: Naya Safar, they all lay emphasis on the matter of Dalit identity.
Jhund‘s triumph-of-spirit pursuits do not forget the significance Dr Ambedkar holds in these parts when the entire neighbourhood jumps to join a colourful celebration in his honour. But festivities can achieve little in absence of progress, Manjule shrewdly notes while critiquing the systematic disparity and deeply ingrained antipathy towards the riffraff.
On the surface, Jhund looks like a sports drama about the proverbial dark horse winning against all odds.
But winning is never the point. It’s about opportunities and mostly the lack of it when it comes to society’s marginalised. Chances are all the more slim when its seekers are chain-snatching, mobile-stealing, glue-sniffing thugs, junkies, scrapyard pickers and eve teasers sporting cheap fashion, highlights in hair and DANGER on their bike’s license plate.
The vibrant louts of Nagpur’s Gaddi Godam slum region are forever engaged in scuffles and fights. It’s a somewhat romanticised portrayal of juvenile hooliganism, the impact of which is heightened in Ajay-Atul’s booming beats and Saket Kanetkar’s exhilarating background score.
The musicians deliver a cracker of a soundtrack that shows a standalone understanding of Jhund‘s ideals across Amitabh Bhattacharya’s potent lyrics. Be it the duality of Laat Maar or spirit of Baadal Se Dosti or his delightful use of Maharashtrian slang for ethnicity not swagger.
A fairy tale is set in motion when a retired sports teacher sees the kids playing football with a plastic drum in the rain. All of a sudden, they cease to be ruffians.
Cinematographer Sudhakar Reddy Yakkanti ardently captures the glory these grubby faces are capable of, apart from his evocative use of drone cameras to highlight the distinction among the social classes.
There’s talent in the ghettos, but no platform nor guide. Vijay volunteers to help them cultivate a love for their inborn gift and test its merit by openly challenging naysayers, a la Chak De! India. Like in the latter where Shah Rukh Khan’s coach proposes a contest between his all-girls hockey team to take on the boys, Vijay organises a sadbhavna match between his barefoot litter and the nearby convent’s cool kids in jerseys.
Though Team Gaadi Godam arrives looking like a funky ad of United Colors of Benetton, the ensuing hilarity, horseplay and turning of tables is just the sort of mood Jhund is rooting for.
Once the kids have tasted blood, they want to keep playing. Not for money. Not for glory. But for identity. Vijay embodies the role of hope and course correction that the privileged need to assume for the misguided and marginalised to find their place in the sun.
‘Hum Ko Duniya Ne Roj Dekha Hai. Phir Bhi Andekha Jhund Hai,’ cries a line in Jhund‘s title song.
Manjule pauses and lets these voices — Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian, a watchman from North East, young girls refusing to remain pigeon-holed in clichéd ideas of gender specific roles — have their say. If hearing these young boys and girls open up — awkwardly, incoherently — never feels manipulative, it’s because of the sheer authenticity of their being.
These voices are coming from a place of truth; these aren’t a professional actor’s insightfully performed, meticulously rehearsed impulses. The tan is real. The accent is organic.
Saare Jahan Se Acha‘s patriotic tune plays on cue and evokes the idea of India. Except its significance is lost on the ‘Bharat matlab?‘ wondering child. Their lives are so trivial in the bigger picture; they don’t have the time to mourn when one’s gone too soon. The coldness hits hard.
But Vijay’s altruism pushes him to expand the scope of their breakthrough from local to national to international.
One that Don (a terrific Ankush Gedam), the most prominent amongst the jhund struggles to be a part of no thanks to his constant brush-ins with law (fuelled by mischief monger Akash Thosar). He’s not the only one bending over backwards to procure a passport.
A girl (Rinku Rajguru puts in a small but significant appearance) from Pahada village goes through painful degrees of red tapism while mother of three girls Raziya (Raziya Kazi) learns that leaving her son-obsessed husband is proving detrimental in processing paperwork.
At nearly three hours, Jhund has a lot on its mind. One of them is to remind us that Mumbai is not the rest of India. Manjule addresses the casteism, elitism and sexism but also acknowledges that sometimes something as trivial as the language of emojis can transcend class.
Respect begets respect. It is as simple as that.
Manjule’s enthusiasm in directing his childhood hero is evident in Amitabh Bachchan’s start-to-finish authority. Playing a character put off by the idea of retirement is becoming on Bachchan. A few months away from turning 80, this is his third release since the pandemic.
Hands in pocket, eyes firmly focused on his mission, conviction inks his speech while his serene, sensitive portrayal has a calming effect on the kids and Jhund. Vijay is a big guy now, but the world is still not done saving.
Jhund‘s spunk lies in its many, many peripheral characters — Don’s smart alec bestie in a red cardinal inspired hairstyle, the henna-haired enthusiast’s breathless commentary, the ganja-peddling washer woman, the knee-high punk sporting a Batman tee and barrels of attitude. Manjule too appears in a small role as the scrapyard owner.
Jhund revolves around football, but it does not build itself around a thrilling match. Sometimes the greatest goal a man can score is to toss the knife in the trash can.