JERSEY: The Name of the Game is Love

[dropcap]J[/dropcap]ersy is a Telugu-language sports drama which opened last month to rave reviews. It is director Gowtham Tinnanuri’s second feature film. Mainstream sports dramas, as we know, are not really about sport. The iconic Rocky, for example, is a romanticisation of the human spirit and has spawned an entire series in its wake. Lagaan, Chak De! India and Iqbal similarly glorify the underdog. But there is a parallel tradition too. Clint Eastwood’s Million-Dollar Baby, for example, is in the mould of a classical tragedy, spare and austere, as is Martin Scorcese’s Raging Bull. In them, the hero is defined by irremediable failure

Jersey, while populist and sentimental, is, nonetheless, a film with a difference. It begins in the U.S., in a bookshop, where a young girl asks for a recently-released biography of a famous cricketer called Arjun. But the book is sold out.  She leaves the bookshop followed by a young man. He is Nani, Arjun’s son and author of the biography.

As he hands the girl a copy, the film moves backwards in time and you watch puzzled as the camera silently pans a shabby room with discoloured, patchy walls. There are pots and pans strategically placed on the floor to catch water leaking through the ceiling. It is early and a family is sleeping. The little boy wakes up and shakes his father awake who, you realise, is none other than Arjun.  As he leads Nani to the kitchen, you notice how tall, broad and handsome he is. Yet there he is, heating milk on the stove while his wife, Sara, announces grouchily that she needs an extra hour of sleep before leaving for work. This is unusual. The sports genre, after all, is about masculinity and victory whereas Arjun is unmistakably a has-been.



Alternative masculinity



Jersey’s plot consists in Arjun’s efforts to buy Nani an original cricket jersey for his birthday. It costs 500 rupees – a lot of money given that the film is set in the eighties – which Arjun is unable to procure. He requests the store owner to sell it to him on credit but is refused. He asks his wife for the money. But she indignantly hands him 100 rupees to pay the electricity bill instead. Then he turns to his friends. But they are broke too. Arjun is, by all accounts, a failure.

Having given up cricket, he seems to have given up on life itself and spends his time drinking and gambling with friends. However, there is another narrative. That of Arjun’s relationship with his son. Stung by his inability to buy Nani what he so badly wants, Arjun decides to go back to cricket. Tinnanuri is showcasing alternative masculinity here in which the will to succeed is powered by love. This is the personal element in an otherwise conventional film.





The two narratives are at work in Arjun’s relationship with Sara too. As the film flashes back to their early days together, there is a telling scene in which he is busy kissing her during a Ranji Trophy match, oblivious to calls summoning him to the field. He loves her madly and their identity as a couple is consistently foregrounded. Sara is Christian, he is Hindu and they brave religious prejudice to get married. It is clear that their first loyalty is to each other.

There is a scene just after Nani is born. Arjun is holding him in his arms when Sara suddenly asks him whom he loves more. “You,” he says, “you are my everything.” Here Tinnanuri places the man-woman relationship over the parent-child one. This is rare in a country as misogynistic as India were occupying the central place in her husband’s life is a distant dream for most women.


“Who do you love more”


Arjun and Sara’s relationship is sorely put to the test by Arjun’s failure as a cricketer. When she catches him stealing from her purse, the film reaches a point of crisis. “What has happened to you, why can’t you work at something other than cricket,” she rages. She does not support his return to cricket and, in an act of betrayal, appeals to her estranged father for financial help. “I want a simple life, like everyone else,” she pleads. But on the eve of the Ranji Trophy final as Arjun prepares to leave for Mumbai, she wishes him luck and once again asks him their signature question. “Whom do you love more, Nani or me?” He answers as before.





Both characters are perfectly cast with Telugu superstar, also called Nani, playing Arjun and first-time actress, Shraddha Srinath, playing Sara. They are both supremely good looking but their star quality never overwhelms the roles they are playing. It is to Tinnanuri’s credit that his actors are never just objects of fantasy.


Ageing and mortality


Arjun negotiates his return to cricket and climbs the rungs to success in the second half of the film. This part of the story is told in the language of the conventional sports drama but with a twist. When you see Arjun effortlessly and repeatedly hitting the ball to the boundary, you notice also that he avoids running for singles. And you understand that behind his brilliance and panache lurks a lack of fitness. This acknowledgement of ageing and mortality undo the message of celebrity culture which glorifies the sportsperson as a super-machine.

Arjun’s body, for all its magnificence, is all too human. And his rise to fame is punctuated with humiliations as he competes with younger players. Failure in conventional sports dramas is but a cue signalling ultimate success. It is also a testament to the protagonist’s machismo under the guise of his grit and resolves. You see him as he awaits his moment in the sun, silent, brooding, his jaw set with determination. There is none of this in Jersey. As Arjun sits out match after match, there is stubbornness in his attitude and sadness too.





Arjun is an atypical hero for whom there aren’t too many precedents. At least not in the mainstream, commercial cinema. There is a similar character in Tinnanuri’s first film, Malli Naava (Come Back Again). In it, Karthik is an easy going software engineer. He is in love with Anjali since they were fourteen-year-olds in school together. They meet years later and decide to get married. He gives up his job to follow her to America. But she leaves him at the altar. And when she marries someone else after a few years, he loves her still. Like Jersey, Malli Naavawas a hit too. It seems as if Tinnanuri has broken new ground. One wonders what he will bring to us in his next film.

The Leaflet