Jhund movie review: A Bachchan-struck Nagraj Manjule cutesyfies poor Dalits for a Bollywood palate
Jhund, despite its grand ambitions and good intentions, it fails to click as a cohesive, gripping whole.
In 2016, Amitabh Bachchan starred in a Hindi film that featured him prominently on its posters, towering over Taapsee Pannu, Kirti Kulhari and Andrea Tariang.
Pink’s promotions may have encashed Bachchan’s superstardom to draw audiences into theatres, but the film itself, despite the flawed writing of his character, remained committed to its primary focus on the three women standing up to a sexual predator. In a departure from most Indian commercial cinema about violence against women, Bachchan played an ally, not the central figure in Pink.
The marketing of
Jhund (Herd) too has revolved around Bachchan: a teaser showing a bunch of youngsters drumming up a storm on everyday items turned into percussion instruments, to herald the arrival of Bachchan in the frame; a poster foregrounding a giant image of the star while in the background in diminutive form are a host of characters; a trailer flashing the words “starring the legendary Amitabh Bachchan”. Unlike Pink, here the promotional material is a not-entirely-inaccurate representation of the film itself.
Writer-director Nagraj Popatrao Manjule’s
Jhund purports to spotlight a group of impoverished and/or Dalit youth who inch away from crime, alcohol and drug addiction when a local academic taps their instinctive talent for football. In its narrative style, Jhund is an experiment rarely seen in Indian cinema and hence, laudable for its risk-taking. It wavers in its portrayal of Dalits though. Despite some engaging moments with its ragtag team of sportspersons, Jhund is “an Amitabh Bachchan film” all the way, even if not in the conventional sense.
Jhund’s Bachchan-centricity is conspicuous because Manjule, otherwise one of India’s finest directors, is known for his steadfast gaze on his Dalit protagonists’ concerns and agency. In his affecting debut fiction feature, Fandry, he zeroed in on a teenager living on the margins of rural society and in love with an upper-caste girl. With Sairat, he gave us an equally strong Dalit man and upper-caste woman who are in danger because they are in love in a casteist society. Manjule’s filmography has been Marathi so far, barring his Hindi short Vaikunth in the anthology Unpaused: Naya Safar (2022). is his first full-length Hindi film. Jhund Bachchan here plays Professor Vijay Borade who is on the verge of retirement. Borade teaches in a Nagpur college catering to upper-class students, while in a sprawling slum in the vicinity, their peers indulge in petty crimes for survival. The wall dividing these two sets of people is both literal and figurative. The good Professor – modelled on the real-life activist Vijay Barse – is the only one who bothers to cross over from his side. One day, Borade spots young slum-dwellers playing football with a can and realises that the sport could lift them out of their difficult lives. Jhund chronicles his efforts to win them over, the change in their priorities wrought by this new interest, and the lengths to which he goes to facilitate their exit from a marginalised existence. Clearly Vijay Barse is an inspiring individual. It is not this review’s contention that he is not worthy of a biopic, but it is necessary to point out that contemporary Hindi cinema – unlike Marathi cinema – almost never features poverty-stricken Dalit protagonists, scripts with major Dalit characters struggle to get funds, and so, it is not surprising that Manjule has, disappointingly, opted for this particular story for his Hindi feature debut. Having said that, even in a film like Jhund, it should be possible to create an ensemble of distinctive characters that remain as identifiable and memorable as the leading man. While not in the context of caste, Shimit Amin did manage this with the women’s hockey team in Chak De! India though it was unmistakably centred around their male coach played by Shah Rukh Khan. Amitabh Bachchan in a still from Jhund In , apart from Don a.k.a. Ankush Masram played by Ankush Gedam, none of Borade’s other recruits gets a well-rounded characterisation. Raziya (Rajiya Kazi) has a back story going for her, but we never get to see into this woman’s soul. Jhund There is a different kind of othering going on here, when the most memorable aspect of characters from the slums in a film are their amusing quirks, their eccentricities and the colour in their personalities. Manjule, who has created such beautifully fleshed out human beings for his Marathi films, appears to have cutesyfied the poor Dalits in Jhund for the Bollywood palate, which is an inexplicable choice to make since his ultra-low-key narrative tone here is far removed from anything Bollywood audiences are used to. After a while, Jhund’s shot at true-to-life realism becomes self-indulgent to the point of being dull. Manjule seems to be trying to achieve a hybrid of fictionalised reality, realistic storytelling, a deeply observational mode and a documentary-like flavour in Jhund but is unable to get there. For an example of a contemporary Indian film pulling off that amalgam, watch Kunjila Mascillamani’s recently released Asanghadithar (The Unorganised), based on the true saga of women salespersons in Kerala fighting for easy access to toilets and requisite breaks in their workday, that is part of the Malayalam anthology Freedom Fight. Jhund’s 178 minutes running time is further bogged down by the insertion of Ajay-Atul’s songs that are nowhere close to the mesmeric soundtrack the duo created for Sairat. There is even a weak attempt to replicate ‘ Zingaat’s’ energy with Lafda Zala – the composition and picturisation – in Jhund. Manjule also displays a troubling understanding of intersectionalities when he treats even the male slum-dwellers’ discomfiting attitude to women – their female teammate, who becomes the butt of a joke about shirtlessness, and the glamorous rich woman who Ankur falls for – as cute, and a comic element in his script. It is impossible not to love Bachchan in Jhund, and interesting to see his elderly, restrained interpretation of the youthful, crusading Vijay from the 1970s and ’80s. This is an endearingly controlled performance, but Manjule succumbs to the temptation to give his star an unnecessary speech about the need to uplift marginalised communities, and never lets us forget that this man of privilege is the leader of the poor lower-caste people in the film. The speech could have been excused if the film worked in its entirety, but not when, in retrospect, what lingers from this nearly 3 hour exercise is a single well-shot football match between the slum residents and posh students, and the climax in which we really and truly get to see – actually see – the inner Ankush. Gedam, for the record, is lovely and Ankush deserves a film all his own. Bollywood has for several decades now largely ignored the caste system, with the likes of Masaan, Article 15 and Pareeksha remaining few and far between. Jhund is important in that context because it makes caste, marginalisation, Dr B.R. Ambedkar and the slogan “ Jai Bhim” the focal point of its conversation. More’s the pity that, despite its grand ambitions and good intentions, it fails to click as a cohesive, gripping whole. For a film that understands caste and intersectionality, and has intelligence, heart and soul, I would pick Neeraj Ghaywan’s Geeli Pucchi from last year’s Hindi anthology Ajeeb Daastaans any day over this excessively long, ultimately pretentious film from Manjule. Rating: 2 (out of 5 stars) Jhund will be in theatres on Friday, March 4, 2022 Anna M.M. Vetticad is an award-winning journalist and author of The Adventures of an Intrepid Film Critic. She specialises in the intersection of cinema with feminist and other socio-political concerns. Twitter: @annavetticad, Instagram: @annammvetticad, Facebook: AnnaMMVetticadOfficial
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