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Jhund is not just another sports film. It explores the ‘idea of India’ through Dalit eyes

In an era where society is divided like Salman Khan’s 'Tere Naam' haircut, Jhund forces us to revisit the ‘idea of a nation’ through Dalit realities.

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A special kind of boredom engulfs me whenever I hear the term ‘sports film’, especially those made in India. You’ll expect many formulaic checkpoints such as slow-motion training shots, Sandeep Maheshwari-esque motivational dialogue, a long and tedious big sporting event in the climax where the underdogs win. With a generic message about life, the film will end, exit signs pop up, and we move towards the blinding light pouring in from the cinema hall gallery, mildly satisfied that in the nation where nothing happens as planned, the events in the film have happened as one expected it to be.

In most sports films, the privileged from unjust Indian society’s standards mimic the underdogs. This satisfies the hunger for ‘relatability’ of the general public and fulfills the genre expectation from film. Author Thomas Schatz writes that the “film genre transforms certain fundamental cultural contradictions and conflicts into a unique conceptual structure that is familiar and accessible to a mass audience.” Jhund by Nagraj Manjule is a different kind of film that breaks some of the genre’s expectations. At many points, it snatches the privilege of ‘relatability’ from the privileged groups and passes it to the people who have been denied their existence on screen.

As American filmmaker Martin Scorsese once said: “Cinema is a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s out.” Jhund is a film that tries to depict what is out of the frame. In the film. In the nation.

Also Read: 2021 was the year of anti-caste cinema — from Jai Bhim to Karnan

The ‘idea of a nation’ in Jhund

In an era when the market for patriotic movies is hot, and every Bollywood director wants to cash in on the wave of thumping nationalistic drama, Nagraj is gutsy enough to ask a strange but important question: What is a nation? Especially when the whole world is moving towards aggressive nationalism and camps are divided into two clear and separate lines like Salman Khan’s Tere Naam haircut? It’s a time when debates are about resurrecting the ‘glories of the past’ where India’s Right-wingers want to restore ‘Ram rajya’ and the liberals thirst for the pre-2014 utopia. Hope in the past is becoming the fuel to move towards the future. In these times, it is essential to revisit the ‘idea of the nation’ and the ones left behind in the ‘progress’ bandwagon (read: rath yatra).

A nation is defined by its differences between people and places.

“National Identity is a socially constructed and continuous process of defining ‘friend’ and ‘enemy’,” American historian Peter Sahlins writes. One of the signs of an incomplete nationhood is when a country ‘other-ises’ its own people. Dalits in India have been ‘otherised’, criminalised, and treated as enemies who don’t deserve to enter certain spaces. This has created a physical and psychological wall shielded with lethal barbed wire of casteism. Nagraj, in Jhund, symbolically talks about the walls that separate two different kinds of India. His film focuses less on the game and more on the struggle of the marginalised to reach the playground. This is why, in the film, Nagraj Manjule uses the playground itself as the pitch, or the ‘idea of India’, where a select few had access to participate, play, enjoy, laugh, and feel the trance of both victory and failure.

This should also be a reality check for the privileged audience because the only wall they have encountered in their lives is the Pink Floyd album.

Jhund presents a much more powerful imagery of Dalit culture that has been denied space in mainstream cinema. In the meta way, the film itself crosses this Savarna cinematic wall in a sequence of the Bhim Jayanti song where the DJ plays groovy beats and people from slums dance in front of a huge poster of B.R. Ambedkar. This scene will forever remain iconic for any Dalit because it is the first time their icons have been represented with due dignity in the darkness of a cinema hall that remains the glittering bastion of the display of Savarna culture.

The scene ends with Amitabh Bachchan bowing down to Ambedkar. The reel-life ‘angry young man’ finally paying homage to the OG ‘angry young man’ of Indian society.

Also Read: Films, YouTube, Ambedkar — Pa Ranjith is building a new world and it won’t be sidelined

A story of real Indian slums

Jhund is also important because films before this about slums don’t tell us who those living in them are. Slums themselves are symbols of the failed moral promise of nationhood, where a population is forced to live in subhuman conditions.

‘Bahut hard folks’ from Gully Boy (2019), played by Avocado enthusiasts actors from Bandra, had no caste in the film, which is based on slums.

Slumdog Millionaire (2008) focuses more on the poverty fetishisation of the slum, which has its aesthetic value in the global cinematic market. Nagraj Manjule avoids these traps. The frames aren’t sanitised, but the poverty and garbage act as faint backgrounds and are not highlighted to evoke particular emotions of pity and disgust from the audience. This gaze can only come from someone who understands the slum life well and enters their space as a friend and less like a researcher with noise cancellation headphones to figure out “if subaltern can speak.”

Instead of showing people from slums in a constant state of despair and melancholy, Nagraj presents them as human beings stuck in a situation. However, there is music, rituals, celebration, joy, and the everyday rhythm of existence even when the future remains uncertain.

Despite tackling the themes, which may appear serious on paper, the film in no way appears to be didactic. It has all the ingredients that make it an entertaining film. In fact, entertainment can be the best form of propaganda and the boring films masquerading as one with ‘serious social cause’ can often appear as lazy parodies of the said cause. Social films made within their regionally rooted traditions, high on entertainment value, making the best use of available filmmaking/narratives technique work very differently to deliver the message to the masses. Cinema or any form of mass media made with such sensitivity and folklore-ish style can even help accelerate the ‘idea of the nation’ and heal the historically oppressed communities.

This quote by author Toni Morrison sums up the idea of Jhund: “There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.

Anurag is a multimedia artist and host of Anurag Minus Verma Podcast. He tweets @confusedvichar. Views are personal.

(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)

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