A man stands on the railway tracks, in the path of an oncoming train. He’s disheveled and frail, probably in his twenties but seemingly done with life. We brace for suicide by train. At the last moment, he jumps to safety. As he catches his breath, he hears the commentary from a football game. He climbs over the wall—there’s always a wall in Jhund—and joins the spectators. He overhears a team talking about a missing goalkeeper. And just like that, he’s in front of goal, making a save.
Sports isn’t life in Jhund, it’s a lifeline. Time and again, the film reminds us: these are the stakes, this is what it means to be playing. On the one hand, there’s the same hard life, but with some self-respect and acclaim; on the other is disappointment, incarceration, even death. Most Hindi sports films dedicate themselves to the glory of the school, the nation, the struggle of the talented underdog. Jhund is about barriers erected by caste and the lengths those without privilege must go to surmount them. That it tells a tough story with colour and humour and style more than justifies the hopes placed on Nagraj Manjule’s Hindi debut.
It's an indication of where its gaze will be concentrated that Jhund doesn’t start with Vijay (Amitabh Bachchan). Instead, in a wonderful opening montage with an Ajay-Atul theme that splits the difference between Ennio Morricone and AR Rahman, we’re introduced to the youth of Gaddi Godam, a slum in Nagpur, snatching jewelry, cruising the neighbourhood, getting high. Bachchan doesn’t even get an ‘entry’ scene: instead, Don (the charismatic Ankush Gedam), on the run from upper-caste bullies, turns a corner and runs into him. It’s a wry nudge from Manjule—for caste to make it into a mainstream Hindi film, it literally needs to crash the party.
Vijay, a teacher at a local school, is intrigued by Don and his wisecracking friends. When he sees them play football in the rain with an empty canister, something clicks. The next day, he turns up with a ball and offers them five hundred rupees if they’ll play amongst themselves. He does the same the day after that, and on until they stop expecting to be paid but want to continue playing. As their skill increases, Vijay organizes a game with the school team. Symbolically, the jhund enters not from the front gate—where their friends are being denied entry—but by scaling the wall. They’re dressed to the nines: shades, suspenders, caps, boots, a statement of pride before inevitable defeat.
Manjule has fun staging the game—my favourite detail is the delighted spectator in a floral shirt of the sort Bachchan might have worn in the ‘70s—but it’s really made resonant by what comes later. Vijay’s team sits in his drawing room and, one by one, they start to talk about their lives. Though the mood is one of camaraderie, the stories are disturbing and sad, and everyone’s in tears by the end. This scene could easily have been inserted before the game, to key up its emotional impact. But Manjule knows that’s too easy, too quintessentially sports movie.
Like Sairat, Jhund is a film of two contrasting halves. Another director might have ended with the school game, but Manjule keeps expanding the ambit, as Vijay tries to send his proteges and others like them across the country to a world slum soccer tournament. While this sacrifices the film's tight focus, it gradually helps reveal a vast, broken system. One subplot involves Rinku Rajguru’s tribal girl not being able to apply for a passport until she produces identity proof, which her family doesn’t have (there’s a pointed reference to the government’s ruinous citizenship drive). Their search for something this fundamental involves luck and a couple of good turns. Manjule isn’t known for giving his characters an easy time; here at least he places people with power in a position where they can do the right thing.
Bachchan is at his gentlest, a quietly determined Vijay to rival the many explosive ones he’s played. There’s one concession to the audience—a big speech he gives in court. The curious thing is that while Jhund absolutely benefits from Bachchan’s presence, it’s not difficult to imagine the film with another actor. Yet, it’s unlikely the film could have been made, in Hindi and on this scale, without his participation. It’s not Vijay’s film, it's Don's and Baba's and Razia's and all the other youngsters. But, in one crucial way, it might also be Bachchan’s.
There’s really nothing in recent Hindi cinema like Jhund. The grammar employed here can be found instead in other Indian language cinemas: Marathi (Manjule’s Fandry and Sairat), Tamil (Kaala, Pariyerum Perumal, Karnan, Sarpatta Parambarai), Malayalam (Kammattipadam) and others. It’s not just that these films concern themselves with the realities of caste and the rural and urban poor. They also seem more agile, more adventurous and alive to the world around them. Several times in the film, Vijay uses the word zariya: sports as a means to a better life. In its unflinching but euphoric manner, Jhund shows a way to a more charged Hindi cinema.