How ‘Jhund’ Challenges What We Expect From Mainstream Cinema
Watching Nagraj Manjule’s Jhund, moved by the strength of its storytelling and aesthetic, I couldn’t help but wonder what “smart” film consumers would think of its unusual length and storytelling style. . Remarks on “unnecessary” diversions have indeed appeared in many journals. What’s the plot? Is it a film about a retired teacher and sports coach (Amitabh Bachchan) who sponsors young people from a neighboring slum? Or is it the story of young Dalits who find motivation in football and a way to overcome the many challenges in their lives? For some, it is a society that presents relentless obstacles and pushes people to the margins. For many others, Jhund is a powerful revelation of a physical and emotional world that we seek to suppress in ourselves and others.
One of the most interesting aspects of Manjule’s film is its length and changing pace. Jhund makes us experience “time” in a way we have moved away from; not the numb time during which OTT platforms offer film after film, series after series; but the stretched time in which we suffer the excruciating frustration of failures and nothingness and the full spectrum of joy, grief, love, hope and life that unfolds between struggles. The weather and the resilience to endure the weather is not the same for everyone. In the second half of the film, each character’s temporality is shaped by their individual struggles. The vulnerability of Ankush Masram (played by Ankush Gedam), whose passion for football is threatened by the world of crime and drugs, is shown in a way that is both empathetic and frustrating. Unlike the singular narratives of commercial cinema, Jhund seems to burst to the breaking point under the pressures of conflicting morals. The final scene at the airport encapsulates the infuriating trajectory of the story of Masram and those whose lives he represents. Streamlined and designed to pass through the metal detector multiple times, the scene reveals something profoundly real, yet unseen when it happens around us in airport terminals. Earlier in the film, a character tells Don, “You don’t have to win every time.” While this is advice on the wisdom of choosing your battles, it’s also a reflection on how surviving in a caste society is a life of battles for those on the fringes. And how difficult it is to define victory, when behind every triumph lies not only the historical reality of oppression, but the daily obstacles of humiliation and judgment.
The predominant gaze in today’s mainstream movies is, in a way, familiar, even when we struggle to relate to it. Popular cinema’s notion of entertainment has largely been about drawing people away from their own cultures where they can seek joy and celebration, as if those same cultures were the source of people’s social and existential distress. With Ambedkar Jayanti’s vibrant portrayal in Jhund, Manjule broke the willful silence of mainstream cinema about the characters and stories important to this country’s oppressed majority. On top of that, it creates a celebratory image that not only has nothing to do with, but opposes oppressive caste Hindu cultures.
Jhund’s mastery lies in its ability to contain multiplicities, stories, and genders, and languages, skin tones, hair, bodies, genders, and abilities. As it spreads horizontally across the lives of its many characters, the film thickens in texture. Both awe-inspiring and disconcerting, it’s how people move in and out of storytelling at any given time. The stories of Monica (Rinku Rajguru), struggling to get her passport, the young Muslim mother’s uphill struggle against patriarchy, or the train tracks where skirmishes with life and death are lost and won are elemental aspects of the world depicted in the film. And yet these tales are organized in such a way that they defy any logic of hierarchy or priority. Even Amitabh Bachchan’s stardom fails to eclipse Jhund’s multiple brilliance.
You have to believe that films can be made differently; but more importantly, as a movie buff, you have to believe that movies can be watched differently. A movie isn’t just about navigating through finite options of repackaged formulas; it’s about finding in cinema the potential of art and life. The Jhund of Manjule opens the door to this engagement, advancing a conversation about our society that he started with Fandry and Sairat.
This column first appeared in the print edition of March 12, 2022 under the title “Breaking the formula”. The author is a freelance journalist and researcher on caste, gender and religion.