Abhishek Bachchan is punched in the nose once in Ghoomer, and it’s not enough. Padam Singh Sodhi played one test for India and is now a mean drunk. He’s terrible to Rasika (Ivanka Das), a trans woman he supported but now treats as an emotional punching bag, even though she’s the only one who cares for him. He uses his coaching of Anina (Saiyami Kher) to unleash a series of slights, humiliations and sadistic character-building exercises. Writer-director R. Balki wants us to feel this is Paddy’s redemption story as well as Anina’s, but my dual wish was to see her succeed and for Paddy to get his face rearranged by a different person every 15 minutes.
The Anina we see at the start of the film is a prodigiously talented batter about to break into the Indian team. Her trial goes well—save for an appearance by a drunk Paddy, who saunters onto the field drunk, insists on bowling one delivery, and somehow knocks her stumps over. Anina nevertheless makes the cut, but driving home late at night with her boyfriend, Jeet (Angad Bedi), she has a freak accident. Her right arm, which bears the brunt of the injury, has to be amputated.
Paddy enters her life again, and we get a taste of how he’ll treat her for the rest of the film as he jokes about missing arms. He offers her a lifeline: you will play cricket for India again. It’s not so surprising that the competitive Anina, after a period of dark retreat, is curious enough to seek him out. But I can’t understand why her family—supportive grandmother (Shabana Azmi), solicitous father (Shivendra Singh Dungarpur) and two brothers—would let her join the world’s shadiest recovery program without so much as a question about Sodhi’s intentions (or capabilities—‘played one test and has been drunk since’ isn’t a huge endorsement). Only poor, sweet Jeet protests at Paddy’s rudeness, but is disregarded by both oppressor and oppressed.
There’s a lot of The Karate Kid in Ghoomer—exacting teacher puts talented pupil through hell to toughen them up. Anina’s first task is to clear the undergrowth near Paddy’s home, dig up the soil and make a pitch. We see her progress as an excruciating montage, swinging a scythe as she screams in apparent catharsis and a rousing song plays. When she’s unable to hit the right length—remember, she’s a right-hand bat who’s just begun to try and become a left-arm spinner—Paddy puts cow dung on the areas of the pitch she shouldn’t be bowling. Instead of throwing the ball at his head, Anina proceeds to land every subsequent delivery on a perfect length, and later tells a confused Rasika, “He’s a genius.”
Ghoomer is inspired by Károly Takács, a Hungarian shooter who, after his right hand was injured, trained himself to shoot with his left hand and won a gold medal at the 1948 Olympics. There’s a big difference between Takacs’ case and the fictional one of Anina, though. I’d imagine that for a pistol shooter, a hand that doesn’t work is not a debilitating problem. But it is for bowlers, who need both arms to reduce pressure on the one that’s throwing. The film has a doctor point this out, which spurs Paddy to come up with a quixotic solution: Anina will twirl during the run up, which will generate the necessary momentum while reducing strain.
Maybe because it’s former adman Balki at the helm but Anina’s new action feels more like a brand launch rather than something that might plausibly happen on a cricket field. Amitabh Bachchan in the commentary box immediately calls her a ‘ghoomer’ instead than a spinner, people in the stands twirl whenever she comes on to bowl. In other ways too, the film resembles advertising. Apart from Paddy’s drunk scenes, which are nicely shot but pure sentimental bait, the film has the bright, impersonal lighting of a commercial. Characters speak in punchlines that have the bland snappiness of ad-speak.
Bachchan is unable to land his performance on a length: he’s too broad to be sympathetic, not broad enough to get the laughs he’s going for. Kher is a bit bland for the sort of tempestuous fighter she’s playing, but she’s a convincing cricketer—you can see this especially in the initial stretch of the film, where she often bats without the help of creative editing (most cricket films cut between the moment of delivery and the impact with the bat). Ghoomer avoids another pitfall of cricket films by focusing all its attention on one match instead of reducing many games to a handful of moments. But the central gimmick negates these decisions. Anina’s deliveries, which zip past batters who are barely able to see them, never feel realistic. No one even brings up whether a fielder with one arm might cost the national team (the question of her batting is at least raised and then dismissed).
There’s a late twist that cheapens everything that came before. This feels in character for a film that would rather be clever than genuine.