‘Jersey’ Is a Predictable Reiteration That Bollywood Thinks Winning Is Everything

Arjun Talwar (Shahid Kapoor) can only measure his present in terms of his past. Suspended from his government job on the charges of corruption, he stays at home and does nothing. His son Kittu (Ronit Kamra) wants an Indian team jersey for his birthday. It costs Rs 500; Arjun doesn’t have the money. His wife, Vidhya (Mrunal Thakur), works as a receptionist to support the family. She is responsible, Arjun negligent, and they fight – a lot. If Arjun wants to clear his name in the corruption scandal, he’ll have to cough up Rs 50,000 – an amount so huge that there’s no point even thinking about it (not that he wants to bribe; he maintains his innocence).

But a decade ago, in 1986, times were different, so was Arjun. Representing Punjab in Ranji Trophy, he was an ace batsman, hitting close to 100 fifties and 50 hundreds. His coach Madhav (Pankaj Kapoor), a father-like figure coaching Arjun since he was 13, considered him the best batsman ever. But then life happened. Arjun couldn’t make it to the national team, got married, and quit cricket. Madhav keeps telling him to apply for an assistant coach job, in the present day, but Arjun doesn’t budge; he’s done with the sport. He returns to it only when he finds out that a charity match between the Punjab and the New Zealand team would pay him Rs 1,000.

Directed by Gowtam Tinnanuri, who also helmed the 2019 Telugu original, Jersey starts on a surprisingly restrained note. Hindi films (and their heroes) have an unfortunate tendency to romanticise failure. It must be so huge, so life-altering, that it drowns out everything else, materialising a climactic catharsis. Those movies, then, aren’t about failures as much as how they’re overcome – the loss has been reduced to a plot point, a repulsive eyesore.

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But in Jersey’s initial segment, failure isn’t life-altering but life itself. When Vidhya leaves for work, Arjun’s friends come over to drink and play cards. He sits with them, disinterested, tossing a tennis ball in his hands. When Kittu is disappointed that he couldn’t become the class team captain, Arjun tells him that the best player isn’t necessarily the captain – that the captain is someone who gets the best out of every player. Vidhya keeps reminding Arjun to pay the pending bills; he keeps forgetting to pay. One more day, one more disappointment – how does it matter? Failure in these portions is not a piercing wail but an ordinary hum – a default setting, a daily routine.

The first troubling signs emerge when the film cuts to a flashback detailing Arjun’s past life. In these bits, he’s a star batsman, a hero. Playing a local match, about to bat next, he’s making out with Vidhya in a far-flung corner. He comes out (when a teammate bangs on the door, for a player has just got out), hears a condescending comment about his girlfriend, punches the man, threatens him to repeat the lines, meets Vidhya, and then goes out to bat. (How does he not get timed out is beyond me.) This is Shahid Kapoor of Kabir Singh, a character whose hostility is mistaken for masculinity.

A large portion of the film is framed around Arjun and Kittu, but Tinnanuri fails to extract any meaningful performance from Kamra, giving him stilted lines, making him sound and behave like a wise grown-up (very reminiscent of kids in ’70s Bollywood). Even Arjun’s increasing desperation – his inability to afford the jersey – starts to feel hollow. Why not, simply, borrow the money from his coach, a man who believes so much in him? Or why not just take an assistant coach job? But no, this is a Hindi film, and only the moon will do: Arjun wants to play cricket again at the age of 36 – he wants to represent India. There too, Jersey doesn’t have anything new to offer. Tension simmers through trite and silly ‘villains’: a coach doesn’t allow him to practice, a teammate hides his gloves (!). Ditto Vidhya who, constantly demonised, is reduced to a ‘nagging’ wife. Pankaj Kapoor, too, is wasted here, a preternaturally chirpy fellow who peddles such platitudes as, “Age is just a number, puttar.”

We get that Arjun is playing for his pride, that he wants to be seen as a worthy father. But the inciting incident of that motivation – Kittu asking for a jersey – seems way too flimsy. Even the most evident pathos-ridden conversations between the father and son – such as Kittu replacing Sachin’s poster in his cupboard with Arjun’s – are explained (again and again).

Unlike 83 and Kaun Pravin Tambe?, Jersey’s matches are shot with a lot of flair. Even though it employs basic, even stale techniques, such as oblique angles and quick cuts, the camera recedes to show the full expanse of cricketing shots – and they seem both credible and arresting, making us buy Arjun’s talent. Like 83, however, Jersey doesn’t ‘get’ cricket. The Ranji matches look like T-20: in the final, Karnataka has scored 230 runs in 46 overs, declaring at 454 in 127 overs (that too in 1996 – its real-life counterpart had scored at a cumulative rate of less than three runs per over). Which gets worse: Punjab needs 352 in 47 overs – and I don’t need to tell you what happened next.

Arjun returns to the field after 10 years, but he experiences no stiffness, no self-doubts. Neither in the first charity game nor in the subsequent Ranji matches. What we get instead is the ‘Baahubalification’ of cricket. Arjun advises a bowler; he gets wickets. Arjun dives in the slips and scoops stunning catches. Arjun wields the bat; the opponents cease to exist. We don’t know what cricket did to him (in the past) or does to him (in the present). Surely, a cricketer feels something towards the game even beyond the notions of excellence and honour?

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Arjun is such a superhero that, at one point, I was compelled to note, ‘If he is so talented, then why could he not make it to the Indian team?’ The climactic twist answers that question. It’s a cheap trick, a benign version of The Usual Suspects, hiding a (shocking!) secret, that upends our views of the preceding events. But here’s the thing: for this kind of a twist to work, everything else in the film should work regardless. Here it doesn’t. The climax has a very adolescent ‘I fooled you, didn’t I’ feel to it. More so, the big giveaway is its first scene where, in 2022, Kittu goes to buy a bestselling nonfiction book, Jersey, then says he has to attend his father’s felicitation ceremony later. So, when the Punjab team plays the Ranji final against Mumbai, it’s not difficult to connect the dots.

Jersey is painfully predictable, like Hindi cinema’s fixation on victories.

Featured image: A still from Jersey/Allu Entertainment

This article was first published on The Wire.