You don’t need to know football to admire Diego Maradona. The beauty of his impossible movements transcends awareness and analysis, arousing us on an instinctive level. When a film is fleet-footed enough, it has a similar effect. As viewers, we respond to the rhythm not the cross-cutting that enables it, to the grace not the craftsmanship. Nagraj Popatrao Manjule’s Jhund (out now on Zee5) is a terrifically proficient film — with the most dazzling editing I’ve seen in recent Hindi cinema — but I love it because of the way it made me feel.
Manjule — the filmmaker behind the already iconic Maharashtrian triumphs Sairat and Fandry (both on Zee5) — appeared to choose a template for his Hindi film debut: a sporty underdog biopic about a man who taught slum children football. His first gambit was to make audiences believe we knew what was coming. Jhund begins with Nagpur boys yanking necklaces off women’s throats, huffing whitener, threatening drunkard fathers, swapping number-plates from hot motorcycles… These aren’t underdogs we know.
That opening montage follows a red-vested hero everyone calls Don. But do we call the guy who enabled the stealing of a gold chain from a woman’s throat a hero? In the next scene he stands up for a woman he doesn’t know, protecting her from her bullying husband. Yet is this valour or bullishness? Neighbourhood kids snicker at Don always gunning for a fight. Manjule deftly plays with our preconceived notions, steering the ball away from easy judgement. It’s no coincidence that he names this magnetic protagonist after one of Amitabh Bachchan’s most iconic antiheroes.
Bachchan himself plays a character called Vijay: a screen-name he has borne for decades, including in the 1978 Don, where he played dual roles of a cold gangster and a slum-dwelling entertainer. This Vijay is a college professor who sees hope and potential in kids kicking a can in the rain and gives them — by way of purpose — a football. He pays them to play, and soon the playing itself becomes payment. (By naming the most prominent characters Don and Vijay, Manjule is emphasising how they are sides of the same coin, and even passing on a baton: the Angry Young Man our cinema needs today is the Dalit youngster, raging with righteous fury.)
The film looks electrifying. Cinematographer Sudhakar Yakkanti Reddy shoots the film with verité rawness, but editors Kutub Inamdar and Vaibhav Dabhade cut it like a music video: dramatically contrasting action sequences are cross-cut expertly, characters on the run experience perspective-shifts to rival those of the audience, and there is a generous, romanticised use of slow-motion. The football sequences are all heart, and the big match halfway through the film is a stunning crowdpleaser. Manjule is, after all, using a feel-good template to make his points.
When Don and his friends gather funds for Ambedkar Jayanti, a shopkeeper refuses to donate, saying he doesn’t see the point of loud DJ-led celebrations. The boys, tired of this regular refusal, dismiss him and go on to celebrate, loudly. The revellers are wild and ecstatic, but they halt responsibly and stand aside to let an ambulance through, then continue dancing. This is when Bachchan, an impressed onlooker, goes up to a giant picture of Ambedkar and raises his folded hands. There may, indeed, be a point even to loud DJ-led celebrations.
Later in the film, however, that very shopkeeper voluntarily comes forth to donate for a cause he sees as worthy. This is lump-in-throat storytelling, and Manjule smashes it, aided by a crackling ensemble cast — led by Ankush Gedam, Rajiya Kazi, Priyanshu Thakur, with Sairat actors Rinku Rajguru and Akash Thosar in pivotal supporting roles. Bachchan performs with exceptional restraint, and, like the dancers in front of the ambulance, he graciously stands aside. This film belongs to the kids, kids who scale walls and break barriers. When a girl texts in English and a boy replies in Hindi, they start using emojis. They find a way.
Sport can surprise more than art. Jhund caught me off-guard. It lowered my defenses. It scored.
The biggest dream of the Jhund team is to play in a slum football tournament in Georgia. The Georgian film What Do We See When We Look At The Sky? (Mubi) is an enchanting, meandering fable about life, love and football. Directed by Alexandre Koberidze, it is a magic-realism story about a footballer who falls in love with a medical student, but a curse changes their lives — and the actors playing them.
Some of the movie’s most imaginative sequences belong to a couple of football-loving street dogs who have their own routines and traditions about watching the World Cup. In the film, kids without shirts dream big and paint the number 10 on their backs in order to emulate their hero Lionel Messi — who, in turn, wore 10 to emulate Maradona. Heroes make heroes.
Diego Maradona cast a shadow around the world, but nowhere more than Naples, the small town that adopted the Argentinian superstar — and vice versa. Paolo Sorrentino’s lovely The Hand Of God (Netflix) features a protagonist utterly and incurably smitten with the footballer, something the lyrical, Fellini-loving filmmaker demonstrates exquisitely. When we meet young Fabietto, he is agape, fantasising about his sexy, frequently topless aunt. It is a profound infatuation. Yet when asked to choose between two fantasies: a night with her or Maradona playing for Naples, his answer is immediate. Football is love.
Fabietto is a sensitive soul, and later, when triggered by the trauma of his parents fighting, he has an anxiety attack. He has just learnt that his father has a mistress and that his mother knows about it, and he can’t bring himself to breathe. The phone rings. Maradona will play for Naples. Fabietto exults, celebrating like nothing was ever wrong, like nothing could ever be wrong now. Football is family.
The Hand Of God is about fantasies, and Sorrentino uses this roman-à-clef to deconstruct his own obsessions, to swivel from an all-consuming fixation for a sporting idol to cinematic idols. Diego Maradona saves Fabietto’s life the way sport saves all of ours. Sometimes by triumph, sometimes by absolution, sometimes by chance. Sometimes all we need is the freedom to kick.
Streaming tip of the week:
The Pentaverate (Netflix) — created by Mike Myers, who plays most of the characters — is about a secret society that isn’t evil: a kindly Illuminati. The frequently filthy series demands old-school indulgence. Yet the multi-talented Myers remains 100% original. He may be a ham, but he’s Canadian bacon.