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Siraj Syed


Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for FilmFestivals.com and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. He is also an acting and dialogue coach. 

 

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Jhund, Review: Every Jhunderdog has his day

Jhund, Review: Every Jhunderdog has his day

Literally translated, Jhund means herd. Only in this case, the reference is to a group of young slum-dwelling, smoking, drinking ragamuffins, who are also petty criminals, but are transformed into a high class football team, thanks to the efforts of a neighbouring school-teacher, who is about to retire. The film is many films in one and can be seen from several perspectives, each of which would be a valid point of ‘view’. But at its core, it remains a sports drama, where the underdogs take on the privileged class, and prove that they are as good, if not better, than their opponents, elitist school students. Jhund does highlight several social evils and biases, but none of them are new and all of them have been addressed in the past. Some fabulous casting and a few well-crafted scenes make the movie a cut above many others, but I am not going to be swept away, and will go slow on the encomiums.

India is not a football playing nation. Our national game is hockey. Presently, we do not excel in hockey but are champions in cricket. Besides, we have some tennis, wrestling, boxing, weight-lifting, chess and shooting stars too. As far as football is concerned, our world ranking, 2021, according to the world football authority, FIFA, is 104. It was the same in 2020. It was 108 when Jhund was shot, in 2019. That does not mean we do not play football. Many Indians do, because, unlike cricket, it requires much less gear and facilities, and is a rough and tough sport that keeps many under-privileged citizens occupied, besides dissipating their energy, which can easily be misdirected. Almost by definition, football in our country easily lends itself to slums/shanties/‘jhopadpattis’/‘jhuggee-jhopdees’.

Vijay Barse, born 1945, is the founder of Slum Soccer, an activity which made football very popular among this class of our citizens, as well as reduced the crime rates in their areas. Barse was a sports teacher at Hislop college, Nagpur, Maharashtra, and it there that he saw some under-privileged children playing football, using a ‘make-shift’ football. This scene gave him the inspiration to start Slum Soccer. In the year 2001, along with his wife Ranjana and son Abhijeet, he started Krida Vikas Santhi Nagpur, which became the parent institute for Slum Soccer. How much of a biopic Jhund is, we will never know, but the fact is that the producers had to face copyright claims, not from Barse, but from one Nandi Chinni Kumar. More of that below.

It cannot be a mere co-incidence that the protagonist, played by Amitabh Bachchan, has Vijay as his real name. Vijay is what Amitabh’s character is often named. Again, it cannot be attributed to co-incidence that Nagraj Manjule, the writer-director of Jhund, is a fanatic fan of the megastar, and could conceive the character only as it would be played by Amitabh. Vijay Barse is changed to Vijay Borade, probably in deference to the copyright matter. You can trace the Borade appendage to a choreographer-director in Mumbai, called Vijay Borade. No less. So, who is Vijay Borade in the film? He is a sports teacher at St. John’s School, Nagpur, about to retire.

Borade lives with his wife and son, in the school complex, or nearby. Right next to the school, just across the high wall, is a settlement of the deprived and depraved. Persons of all age groups are given to intoxication of the cheapest kind, smoking, gambling, fighting, swearing, stealing and associated unpalatable activities. One day, Borade notices that they are playing football, but they do not have a real football. He feels that if he can provide them a real football and offer them incentive in terms of money, they will keep away from their bad ways. What is more, they agree. Every day, he offers them Rs. 500 after the game, and their football keeps improving. Since he is an ordinary teacher, with limited means, and he has to send his son abroad for studies, cash is scarce. Initially, he asks his wife for money, but the liquidity dries up. To his amazement, the players, who range from the age of about 9 to the age of about 25, including girls/women, are now willing to play for deferred payment, and even free. This leads him to plan the unthinkable; a friendly match between his own school’s students and the’ jhunderdogs’, on the school’s ground. In the school team is Bhavna, who is the centre of interest of the other team’s ‘Don’, whose real name is Ankush Mashram. Bhavna reciprocates this feeling.

A good writer was what Manjule needed; he need not have taken the writing upon himself. Clap-trap situations follow one after another, with loud music and singing, and the ‘Gaddi Gang’s bangs on anything they can get their hands on. There is no noticeable change in the behaviour of the gang after taking to football, except that they are occupied with the game every day for the 60-70 minutes it takes. In fact, one of them dies and another is externed from the area for three months, after indulging in violence, much after Vijay has taken them under his wing. What is an amount of Rs. 500 worth, when you divide it among 22 players? A measly Rs. 23? Let’s extrapolate it to a few years ago. Rs. 23 might be worth a little more. Is that the daily incentive that would get thieves and bootleggers to turn a new leaf? Except for two scenes, Vijay is not shown imparting any football tactile skills to his protegées. Vijay’s son goes to the USA and all we see is a black lecturer talking about the four cornerstones of Management, ending with a ‘goal’. Maybe that word reminds him of football back home, and he decides to come back for good, leaving his course half-finished. Ultra-simplistic, ultra-convenient, to say the least.

One department where the job is wonderfully executed, with some glaring exceptions, is the casting. Let’s begin with Amitabh. He must have been 77 when this film was shot, and is now pushing 80. All that is common knowledge. Yes, he is fit and can try to look 60, but why make him do it? And why no Marathi or accent for him? Then again, Chhaya Kadam, a gifted actress who must be half his age, just does not seem the right choice to play his wife. An actor of the calibre of Kishore Kadam is wasted in an inconsequential role. The actor cast as the college principal makes a poor impression. For the rest, all the gang members, and their families, the small town inhabitants, the police, everybody else, is a treat to watch. They are so natural that one presumes one of two possibilities: either they went through an intensive workshop, or they were given full freedom to improvise as much as they wanted, and then rest was left to editing and/or dubbing. You know what? I think both theories are valid. And their ‘tapori’ dialects, whenever audible, are a delight to savour.

As a showpiece scene, Amitabh is made to address a court, which has a female judge. This type of monologue, with a figure of authority or a deity, has been his home territory, since Deewar, made almost 50 years ago. And here is where both the writer and director in Manjule needed to rise to the occasion. Sadly, they don’t. When his advocate begins to plead his case, Amitabh immediately interrupts him, and asks for permission to address the court, which is granted without batting an eyelid. He does so from the floor, without getting into the witness box. Why retain an advocate when you are going to argue your case yourself? And everything he says is stale and often repeated over decades and decades, both in films, and in speeches by social workers and political leaders. One notable thing he says is that some of the kids in his team can kill a pig with just one stone, a reference to Maharashtrian castes that kill pigs. He presents no evidence of any kind, and only goes on and on about lofty ideals and the great rich/poor divide. A lesser actor could have made a mess of it, but Amitabh manages to hold his own. Unfortunately, that is not enough to hold the viewers’ interest.

Having made two Marathi films that dealt with the caste issue (Fandry, Sairaat) Manjule brings it up here too, and that is fine. A shop-keeper regularly refuses to donate money to the gang on Babasaheb Ambedkar’s birth anniversary, because, he says, singing and dancing are not what Ambedkar stood for. Later, he donates to the gang’s football fund, handing over the money to Vijay. Vijay is a bit reluctant to accept it, but finally, he does. And then, in another scene, there is a picture Ambedkar on the wall, behind Vijay. Vijay stops, folds his hands, and slightly bows before the Ambedkar picture. This is great for the viewers who have been discriminated against on account of their cast. An endorsement from Amitabh Bachchan, no less, makes him a brand ambassador of scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. Look at it closely, and you might feel that then gesture was too filmy. Oh! And there is a Muslim family too, whose daughter wants to join the team, much to the dismay of some members of her family. Caste is not enough; religion must also be addressed.

By contrast, the scene with the girl trying to get her passport made in Digital India (a poster behind her) and, as a step towards that objective, demanding a ‘pehchaan patra’ (certified recognised person), from a shop-keeper, in the absence of other documents, is Manjule at his best. One more sequence where he comes up trumps is when the little kid asks what Bharat (India) is. Where he falters is when he shows all these non-repenting criminals moving about freely, without any of them being sent to Children’s Remand Homes, or to jail, if they be adults. The only punishment we see is Don being externed by the police for three months, for assault, the ‘sentence’ being light, on account of Vijay’s intervention.

Unfortunately, the cast could not largely be identified, but Ankush Gedam lives his role as ‘Don’ Ankush, and Rinku Rajguru is cast as the girl who has to through the grind to get her passport made. Akash Thosar is the good-looking nemesis of Don and the two get into scraps once too often. Abhinay Raj Singh, Ganesh Deshmukh, Vicky Kadian, Tanaji Galgunde, Somnath, Avghade, Bharat Ganeshpure and Suraj Pawar are also in the cast.

Cinematography by Sudhakar Reddy Yakkanti is first-rate, with the games coming alive. Did this film have to be 178 minutes long? Vaibhav Dabhade and Kutub Inamdar are editors who should have the answer. Thankfully, it ends where it does, otherwise another 15 minutes were on the cards. Music (Saket Kanetkar) is loud, as is to be expected, and the songs (Ajay-Atul) are all like slum anthems.

Rating: ***

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iqydRuNr2yY

It has been herd that…

In 2014, Aamir Khan hosted Vijay Barse and Akhilesh Paul in his show Satyamev Jayate, Season 3. In October 2019, Hyderabad-based short-filmmaker Dr. Nandi Chinni Kumar (he has a Ph.D. in film-making), sent legal notices to the makers and Amitabh Bachchan, over alleged copyright infringement. Kumar sent the legal notices to eight persons, including director Nagraj Manjule, producer Krishan Kumar, T-Series chairman and managing director Bhushan Kumar, Bachchan, along with Akhilesh Paul and Vijay Barse, on whose life the film is based, among others.

According to Kumar, as told to Ujjawal Trivedi on YouTube, he wanted to make a biopic titled Slum Soccer, on Paul, a slum soccer player, a former gangster, who was the Indian captain at the Homeless World Cup. The film-maker claimed that, on 19 November 2017, he bought the exclusive copyrights from Paul, under a 'Life-Story Rights Agreement'. Kumar paid Rs. 5 lakh within three months, in March 2018, to Paul, as agreed. Nandi added that Paul, had also signed a No Objection Certificate, declaring that the director is the authorised person for exclusive rights for making the biopic in any language, and it was not given to anyone else. He had already written the script of the film, and registered it with the Telangana Film Writers’ Association.

In May 2018, articles appeared in various publications about the proposed biopic that Kumar was making. While pitching the project to major production houses, Kumar learnt that a film called Jhund was being made on the same theme. Following this, when he heard that Manjule was making a biopic on Abhishek Paul, and Vijay Barse, at that very moment, he sent a notice to Manjule and others, asking him to desist from depicting Paul’s character in the film. He questioned Paul, who denied having given rights to anybody else, but added that Nagraj Manjule was making a film around the same subject, and wanted to talk to him. When he spoke to Manjule, he told him that Paul had sold him the rights too, but that he wanted to resolve the issue. Kumar called Paul, who again denied having signed any contract with Manjule. Kumar called Manjule again, and asked him to produce the contract. Manjule refused to show any contract but offered to talk money. Kumar was not interested. He asked Paul to give him a letter saying that he not assigned the rights to the makers of Jhund, which Paul readily gave.

The producers (there are three production houses involved) told him that his objections would not affect a big film like theirs, and that they would shoot the film in such a way that there would be no Akhilesh Paul in it. Kumar’s stand was that if they wanted the rights for making the film, they should come and negotiate with him, and not resort to brow-beating. He then sent 20 emails, to all the parties concerned, asking them if they had any written agreement from Paul, assigning them the filming rights. Nobody replied. But he learnt that shooting of the film had been halted. On October 7, 2019, he sent a legal notice to all production personnel, Akhilesh Paul and Amitabh Bachchan. To Bachchan, he not only added a tweet, but wrote an open letter. T Series, one of the producers, replied, dismissing his claims, but asked for some time before he should proceed with a legal case. Paul, going back on his contract, replied that he had assigned the rights to the makers of Jhund, because the rights he had assigned to Kumar were only for a ‘documentary’.

Jhund’s teaser trailer was released in January 2020. Kumar learnt that it was likely to release soon on Amazon and Netflix, so he sent a legal notice on May 10, 2020. After this, he got several replies, in May 2020, to the matter he had raised in October 2019. Manjule, in his reply, stated that the character of Akhilesh Paul does not feature in his film, and it is not a biopic. On 13 May 2020, Kumar filed a case in the local court, in native Telangana, asking the court to call upon the addressees to desist from shooting, producing, post production, releasing film teasers, trailers and film posters, marketing, censor certification, broadcasting, selling satellite digital rights and promoting the film Jhund. The producers merely stated that the character of Akhilesh does not feature in their film. The matter then went to the Telangana High Court. In September 2020, Jhund then received a stay order from the Telangana High Court over copyright infringement, on the release of the film in India and abroad. The interim order to this effect was upheld.

In court, the counsel for the Respondents painted Kumar as an opportunist who wanted to extort money, but offered to settle the matter out of court. Kumar refused the offer. But when he was called by one of the producers, he came to Mumbai, and agreed to a settlement, signing a document that he could rescind within 24 hours. This was probably on 21st October 2020. Kumar claims he signed the agreement in a hurry and there were many flaws and illegalities in it. They offered 25% of theatrical release earnings, but there was no mention of OTT in the agreement. But since he had the option of opting out of the agreement within 24 hours, he used the option.

The case continued in the Supreme Court, under another petition filed by the makers, which was heard on 18 November 2020. It was ordered on that day that the Injunction would be maintained, but the case would be decided on merits within six months. Obviously, a settlement was reached, or is presumed to have been reached, and a release date was announced on the website, Cinestaan: 18 June 2021. Earlier, it was to release on 20 September, 2019. For some reason, there was another major delay.

Initially, Jhund was supposed to release on Amazon Prime Video. However, the counsel for the film-maker stated that the movie will lose its value in six months, and they were willing to pay Chinni Nandi Kumar an agreeable sum. An amount of Rs 1.3 crore was offered to Kumar, but it was not accepted. In February, 2022, it was officially announced that Jhund will now release on March 4, in cinema halls, so, obviously, some settlement has been reached, between the parties. And since it was shown to the media on 01 March, this date stands.

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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of FilmFestivals.com and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.


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