'Jhund' Review: Takeover of the subaltern

Nagraj Manjule’s take on entrenched social iniquities and prejudices has an exhilarating flourish and pulsating energy that marks a new narrative departure for familiar “triumph of the underdog” trope

'Jhund'  Review: Takeover of the subaltern

Namrata Joshi

At the far end of Jhund, as an aeroplane takes off, the camera zooms in on a public notice on the ground, “Crossing the walls is strictly prohibited. Offenders will be prosecuted”. The irony in the timing of its appearance in the film leaves one chuckling. It’s as though the filmmaker Nagraj Manjule and his motley characters in Jhund are being tongue-in-cheek and having the last laugh. At the end of the three hours of the film, haven’t they already scaled some barriers and boundaries, if not all, with doggedness and bluster?

Set in Nagpur, Jhund is about a retired sports professor Vijay Borade’s (Amitabh Bachchan) attempt to channelise the energies of a group of slum kids from Gaddi Godaam and to rehabilitate them, away from the world of crime and drugs, by making them turn to football. It’s about turning the mob of the so-called hoodlums and ruffians into a coherent, united team.

Manjule’s third feature film is likely to leave the house divided. It may lack the seething rage of Mari Selvaraj’s Karnan, the subtle subversiveness of Neeraj Ghaywan’s Geeli Puchhi or the grace in brutality of Leena Manimekalai’s Maadathy. Even when it comes to his own films, the sting and bite of Fandry, might be found lacking. It may not have the heart and soul of Sairat either. Many may carp, as a lot did at the time of Sairat, about Manjule pandering to the mainstream aesthetics.

But his appropriation of the familiar “triumph of the underdog” trope of cinema to tell a tale of entrenched social iniquities and prejudices has a singular, exhilarating flourish and pulsating energy that marks a new narrative departure and opens up a fresh window for (anti)caste representation on screen.

From Slumdog Millionaire to Gully Boy, we have been there and seen that. Manjule reclaims what’s essentially his own story and tells it his own audacious way. Rooted in real than a flight of fantasy. There’s a constant, cheeky referencing in the film of PM Narendra Modi’s warning to Pakistan—“Ghar mein ghus ke marenge”. The kids talk about it in terms of attacking than being defensive in the game. But I was struck by how it’s also all about Manjule infiltrating and owning and reinventing Hindi mainstream cinema in his trademark style.

So, no heady sixer or goal in the climax of this supposed sports movie. It’s a security check at the airport that brings things to a quiet, toned down but poignant closure that also shows the hope ahead.

None of Manjule’s characters, despite the vagaries of life, is a pitiable, poor thing, as had been almost mandatory till a while ago in our caste-based narratives. There is a confidence, swag and attitude, despite all the hardships. There’s the ability to crack a joke at themselves and their poverty and also dressing up their own shiny way as cheerleaders for a football match. The joy is still there for them to seize. There’s something kinetic and throbbing, an infectious energy as they take long strides on the screen while the songs of aggression and dances of assertion play on, in the background, specially Lafda Jhala on Ambedkar Jayanti and Bachchan as Borade garlanding the statue of the Father of the Indian Constitution. Suffice to say that it’s a moment in Bollywood, and a lot else.

There’s a leader of the jhund, Ankush “Don” Masram (Ankush Gedam) and a young mother Raziya (Raziya Kazi) who walks out on her good for nothing husband, but Manjule doesn’t go into the minute details of most lives. No inner world revealed. No explanations given for why they are how they are. Are the motives needed? He may not justify the rowdyism—the ragpicking, the coal stealing, the mobile trading and chain snatching, the liquor brewing, the street fighting, the girl chasing, the whitener addiction—but he also doesn’t render the kids as out and out apologetic offenders. What he offers is a social sketch, the milieu and the divides that fester there—bird’s eye view of two different kinds of playgrounds separated by a boundary and judgmental players and officials of the privileged world who refuse to shake hands with the “other”. And you know in an instant then who the actual offender is. The discomfort increases, as fiction turns real with each of the kids narrating her/his stories of a horrifying life, like testimonials, while “Saare jahan se achcha” plays in the background. An attempt to replicate, though not as successfully, the national anthem moment of Fandry. Pedantic, perhaps, but on point, if not entirely powerful.

In this takeover of the subaltern and the dispossessed, the professor (played by who better than the once anti-Establishment, angry young man) is the rightful facilitator and ally, not the protagonist. Yes, he does get the crucial “speech in the court” moment where he talks about kids having to run away from injustices and how they have to struggle to live but it’s the kids (the characters as well as the actors who play them) who linger on, long after the film. Bachchan is relatively muted, and graciously so. And it’s amusing to see the how the untrained, untutored kids hold their own vis a vis him, never once dwarfed by the actor’s overwhelming presence, something that the most accomplished actors are susceptible to. Veterans like Kishore Kadam, Chhaya Kadam, the talented Arjun Radhakrishnan, Rinku Rajguru and Akash Thosar (Archi and Parshya from Sairat) and Somnath Awaghade (Jabya from Fandry) complete the picture.

Manjule does try to pack in too much in three long hours, tries to check too many boxes. He plays with skin colours—the fair-dark divide. He extends the boundaries of our own definition of cute—yes, a dishevelled street urchin could be sweet too and not just a chubby fair blue-eyed one. There are token nods to woman power. To broaden the parameters of the marginalised and the disempowered he willy-nilly also brings in the plight of the tribals, stereotyping of Muslims and the prejudices against a monolithic North-East into his frame. Yes, it’s about forming solidarities but also blurs the focus.

In the protracted second half, the film at times feels like an ad for Passport Sewa Kendra. But, in the same breath, Manjule talks of kaagazaat (papers, documents) in the sub-plot featuring the tribal girl Monika’s attempts to procure identity documents for government records. He talks about how in giving such overt importance to paperwork, it’s the humans who get robbed of their dignity. And you know exactly what the comment is aimed at.

There is a lot of clutter in Jhund. But it’s as though Manjule is deliberately not tidying things up, not ironing out the wrinkles. In fact, he embraces the disorderliness with audacity. There is order in the chaos and yet a turmoil that persists. The herd may have got molded into a team but its essential disruptiveness stays. And disruptiveness, ultimately, is the key to upheavals and changes. It’s for this reason alone that irrespective of whether you like it or not, it would be tough to ignore Jhund.

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