Abhay Deol's bland sports drama Jungle

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    Abhay Deol's Jungle Cry is neither a thrilling sports drama nor an efficient social commentary that strives to join the dots between the inextricable hold of poverty, caste, and sport in the country.

    In 2007, 12 tribal underprivileged children from Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences lifted the under-14 Rugby World Cup in London after beating South Africa 19-05 in the final. That they picked up the sport only in four months made their achievement all the more noteworthy. And yet, their World Cup win went unnoticed because it coincided with the Indian cricket team’s triumph at the inaugural T20 World Cup. That alone, summarises the dismal state of sport in a country habituated to put cricketers on a perennial pedestal.

    It’s a premise that is certainly tailor-made for the screen, one that gained to prod at a country’s collective conscience. Sagar Ballary’s Jungle Cry wants to be the film that translates the almost impossible odds of these 12 kids lifting the World Cup trophy on screen but it never quite reaches there. It’s neither a thrilling sports drama nor an efficient social commentary that strives to join the dots between the inextricable hold of poverty, caste, and sport in the country.

    The one thing that Jungle Cry (the film is co-written by Dipankar Giri, Shubhodeep Pal, and Diane Charles) remains visibly interested in is reducing a World Cup rugby win to its lowest common clichés. It is the kind of film that wastes no minute in romanticizing every obstacle that it can bestow on the underdog team. There’s a downtrodden team and frequent in-fighting between players. There’s a coach who is distrustful of their abilities of winning the World Cup, a government that denies them funds, and a loss in the very first match. And then there are the frequent comic scenes about the players’ unfamiliarity with the English language, flights, (in one early scene, a kid asks whether they will go to London on a bus or in a train; in a later scene, another player who can’t adjust to the processes of boarding a flight is played for laughs), and the ways of life abroad.

    Sympathy is demanded as easily as laughs. In the film for instance, the Indian team’s win over their South African counterparts by a small margin, which not only reiterates the underdog status of the team but also articulates the sheer impossibility of that win. In real life, however, the stakes weren’t that one-sided and the victory, deserved despite the circumstances. In that sense, Jungle Cry fails to look beyond its one-line longline: a group of impoverished kids win a World Cup. So, scene after scene, it goes out of its way to exoticize their poverty. The stakes are somehow always against them. First, it’s the fact that the football-trained kids have to pick up a whole new sport while battling language barriers with their British coach Paul Wash (Stewart Wright) and government apathy. Then it’s the struggle to acclimatise to their football-turned-rugby coach Rudrakesh Jena’s (Abhay Deol) strict ways and the tournament official belittling their capabilities. Tempered throughout the proceedings is a constant reminder of their economic status and family tragedies. The film seems hellbent on seeing these rugby champions as nothing more than social messages.

    That approach would have still worked if Jungle Cry managed to effectively translate the essence of their win. Saying that the film doesn’t even come close to evoking any reaction would be an understatement. Much of the reason is Ballary’s filmmaking, which is unbearably simplistic and wholly uncommitted. Jungle Cry opens with a verbose voiceover (Kabir Bedi’s baritone is invoked) that does nothing more than summarize the entire film. Most of the filmmaking decisions of Jungle Cry tread similar ground: The narrative is splits across past and present timelines that end up interrupting the continuity of the proceedings instead of any depth to it. For some reason, Ballary also adopts a docu-fiction format, interspersing the narrative with self-conscious talking heads, turning the film into a tonally inconsistent outing. The collective sub-par acting and staging (scenes begin and end abruptly, often without any clear conclusion) is as frustrating.

    The screenplay goes a step further in maximising the distance between the viewer and the story. The caste background of the players is never examined even though the film treats the tribal identity of the players as a calling card. A clear example of the trite writing is the presence of Roshni (Emily Shah), the team’s physiotherapist who takes up much of the film’s screen time, embodying the film’s habit of getting waylaid from its own story by introducing multiple characters and sub-plots. Lost in the process are the players who remain strangers even after two hours of runtime.

    It’s hard not to draw comparisons to either Nagraj Manjule’s Jhund or Shimit Amin’s Chak De! India while watching the film simply because it feels like an unrealized, inferior copy of both these outings. It takes a special talent to take a thrilling story of survival and excellence and turn it into a bland drama that is so inefficient in telling a story that it should be embarrassing for everyone involved. If anything, an apology to the sports capital of India is in order.


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