The sports drama genre, be it fictional or biopics, is in vogue in Indian cinema. From hockey to boxing, wrestling, football, cricket and athletics, several sports-based films have been hitting the screens frequently. Gowtham Tinnanuri’s biggest challenge with Jersey, therefore, was to not sound too predictable. A challenge that becomes harder, considering it’s a film on cricket, the most followed sport in the country. But the director pulls it off by choosing to tell a story about failure rather than success.
In 1986, a flamboyant Arjun (Nani) walks towards the pitch to bat. His besotted girlfriend Sarah (Shraddha Srinath) screams ‘I love you’ from the stands. Cut to 1996, the exhausted couple is asleep – the father holding his son in his arms, the mother asleep on the couch. The roof is leaking. What went wrong? Why did Arjun’s career fail to take off? What made the once passionate couple so grumpy with each other?
At first, it looks like Gowtham is going to tell us the all too familiar story of a talented young man’s broken dreams and his subsequent wallowing in self-pity. But where the script scores is in going beyond that, and also showing us the effect that this has on the people who love him. So, when an exasperated Sarah – who is the family’s sole breadwinner, cook and housekeeper – asks Arjun if he’d managed to do any of the tasks she’d asked him to do through the day instead of bumming around, she isn’t characterised as a nag. You understand her resentment, but you also understand the grey fog surrounding Arjun. She’s the practical planner, cutting down on today’s unnecessary expense so they can pay the school fee next month; he’s the impulsive guy who lives from moment to moment, and moves mountains to indulge his son’s birthday wish. You empathise with her at times, you empathise with him at times.
Though sports dramas are fond of giving us infallible heroes, Jersey gives us one who is constantly failing at everything he touches. Both Shraddha and Nani are terrific together, portraying two guilt-ridden people who don’t know how to bridge the widening gap between them. Their troubled marriage has neither the sound nor fury of the monsoon. Rather, it’s cold and silent like winter. They barely look at each other or converse beyond the mundane logistics of everyday life. There’s one scene when she hesitantly puts her arm on his shoulder as he’s riding the bike – not a word is exchanged, but the moment is so pregnant with the unsaid that you cannot help but be moved. The two actors are effortless in bringing nuance and complexity to the table, making us like both of them even when they suffer because of each other.
Arjun’s relationship with his little son, Nani, is what drives the story forward. Gowtham uses every parent’s desire to be a hero in their child’s eyes to sketch a warm portrait of a father-son. And there’s only one way Arjun knows how to accomplish that – cricket. The screenplay shifts back and forth in time, the story coming to us in bits and pieces. The shifts in time period are cleverly done, evoking a sense of nostalgia for the Doordarshan and high-hipped skirts era but without going overboard and distracting us from the story. However, the makeup in the 2019 timeframe looks obvious, especially for Shraddha.
Sathyaraj plays Murthy, Arjun’s coach, chief cheerleader and substitute father. The benevolent old man role is one that Sathyaraj can play in his sleep but I did wonder why Gowtham chose to do away with building a history for Arjun’s family. We’re simply told that he has no one and the lack of detail seems strange, considering the film puts him in the centre. Did he just mushroom into a cricketer overnight? How did he end up playing an expensive sport if he has no one?
The throwaway joke on a senior lawyer clarifying that his woman junior had not become pregnant because of him could have been avoided – in this day and age when the country is at last taking workplace sexual harassment seriously, it’s time to recognise that the deadline for such comedy is past us.
The cricket games are staged convincingly and though you can predict the results, they’re still exciting to watch. From the shots off the bat to the expressions on the faces of the players, Sanu Varghese’s camera makes us feel that we’re watching a real game. Anirudh’s background score, too, helps in pushing us to the edge of our seat with every ball. Nani excels in playing the “uncle” who watches from a distance as his much younger teammates dance and have a blast. The weight of responsibilities never leaves his face and the actor manages to bring sobriety to his face without turning sullen. It’s his impressive and varied performance which makes us sit through the 2 hour 40 minute long film without complaint.
The ending left me conflicted and I’m still making up my mind on whether Sarah got the short end of the stick – but then would it have been worth it if Arjun had made a different choice? I’m not sure about that either. It’s one of those times when you say “The game won” rather than applaud the team which did.
Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the film. Neither TNM nor any of its reviewers have any sort of business relationship with the film’s producers or any other members of its cast and crew.