It is a shame that we, the Indian film audience, need occasional reminders about Pankaj Kapur’s craft. In Jersey, directed by Gowtam Tinnanuri based on his 2019 Telugu superhit film, the veteran actor plays an assistant cricket coach of the Punjab state team. He cuts an odd figure on the ground, a tiny old man next to tall, well-built players. But when the camera gets close to him, the screen brightens. He nods and raises his brows while narrating a story, shakes those shoulders a little as though he is about to break into a dance when he is excited, squints when he is saying something he believes would change the other person’s perspective. His presence on screen is loaded with a strong sense of life, as though he has seen and experienced things most people have not. Even when he belts out expository dialogue, something Jersey makes him do a lot, Kapur hits the gold. All actors come with a bag of tricks or idiosyncrasies that, they hope, would make them stand out from the crowd. Kapur comes with a rare kind of talent to build a habitable world through gestures.
But, evidently, our mainstream cinema does not trust its actors. Consider this scene in Jersey where Shahid Kapoor’s Arjun, a 36-year-old cricketer returning to the ground after ten years, learns of his Ranji selection. He quietly, yet nervously, rushes to a railway platform to scream his heart out, the sound of a passing train draining out his voice. However, the loudest in the scene is the background score, the strains of a violin that stifles the scene. Unfortunate since Shahid Kapoor delivers a sensitive performance here.
Jersey is founded on the aphorism popularised by Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Anand (1971), that life should be big, not long. Arjun is a Grade III government employee, suspended from his job for a false bribery case. He has been whiling away time brooding, much to the chagrin of his wife, Vidya (Mrunal Thakur), a receptionist at a star hotel. The melodramatic narrative reminds the viewer repeatedly in the initial scenes that Arjun has not smiled in years, tracing his unhappiness to his leaving professional cricket at 26. When his little son, Kittu, asks for a jersey of the Indian cricket team as his birthday gift, which Arjun cannot afford despite him trying different means, he decides to take charge of his life.
Tinnanuri’s film, like an Instagram travel influencer, looks down on those leading a quiet (and uneventful) domestic life. This worldview is most evident in its portrayal of Vidya, the family’s sole breadwinner. In the flashback sequences, she is a doll, full of innocence and life. In the flashback scenes, she is a construct that resembles the iconic Cadbury girl. A head-turner in the gallery when Arjun is on the ground. Cut to ten years later, Vidya is the humourless matron of the house the son and father tiptoe around. While Arjun, depressed and unemployed, has a horde of friends who barge into his house every day to goof around, Vidya is lonely. A case of a south Indian mainstream cinema disorder – of surrounding a hero invariably with a satellite system of buoyant friends – mindlessly making its way to Hindi cinema. Women on the Telugu screen rarely have a social life.
Vidya sternly refuses to lend Arjun a sum of Rs 500 to buy a jersey for the boy citing their poverty. A strange decision since, on the same evening, she throws a lavish birthday party. Clearly, it is not poverty that prompts her to refuse him money but a sheer lack of love that has crept into their marriage. The film uses it as a tool to explain Arjun’s decision to return to cricket. Interestingly, in Rakesh Omprakash Mehra’s Toofan, another recent sports drama, Mrunal Thakur played a similar character, the wife of an ex-sportsman. If it was her death that led her partner to return to the turf to be a champion in Toofan, here it is Vidya’s scorn.
Death figures in Jersey too, but as a mawkish complement to Arjun’s story. The hook of Tinnanuri’s film is not the hero’s return to cricket that he had left a decade ago and miraculously becoming the best at it, but his startling, dramatic exit from life. It is not an exaggeration to say that the film imagines Arjun as a mythical figure. His genius is not a result of hard work but innate. In every match post his return, Arjun hits boundaries after boundaries, never displaying a sign of frailty, even though he is older than all his teammates and was out of practice for a long time.
Jersey has an uneven narrative. It opens with a scene of an adult Kittu walking to a bookstall to buy a book on his father’s life. The implausibilities aside, the situation is poorly staged, loud like a television soap opera. In the initial scenes set in Arjun’s household, the film breaches emotional continuity several times. It abruptly cuts from a moment of gloom to a comic scene, complete with a typical background score. Jersey, centred on a brooding hero who takes a slap from his wife, must have been a breath of fresh air in the Telugu cinema of 2019, a space that reeked of testosterone. But Tinnanuri’s decision to make an identical Hindi remake without polishing the many rough edges backfires in Jersey.
This Jersey review is a Silverscreen original article. It was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the movie. Silverscreen.in and its writers do not have any commercial relationship with movies that are reviewed on the site.