A scene from Jhund featuring Amitabh Bachchan and other actors in the background
A scene from Jhund featuring Amitabh Bachchan and other actors in the background

Manjule's Jhund is anti-caste, but fails to avoid the Savarna gaze

Beyond ‘exoticising’ the youngsters of Gaddi Godam by showing their swag, their funky hairstyles, filmmaker Nagraj Popatrao Manjule does not delve deeper into their lives.

*Contains spoilers 

It is quite remarkable what filmmaker Nagraj Popatrao Manjule of Fandry fame has achieved with his Bollywood debut Jhund. Without making any compromises on his ideals, the director has presented a story about youngsters and kids from marginalised communities with an anti-caste theme running through it. Typically directors prefer to address the issue of class in such dramas, but Manjule brings in the element of caste, which is a social reality in India. 

In Jhund, there is a full celebration of legendary anti-caste icon and emancipator of the masses Dr BR Ambedkar with Buddhist flags and blue-coloured flags with ‘Jai Bhim’ written on them. And Amitabh Bachchan, the lead actor, who is one of the biggest stars, pays tribute to Ambedkar by folding his hands to his large portrait that also features other anti-caste icons Shahu Maharaj and Jyotirao Phule in the background. Pulling this off in an industry which shies away from addressing caste is no mean feat. Dhadak, the Bollywood remake of Manjule’s own Marathi film Sairat, is an example of it. (Caste, which was a point of conflict in Sairat, was replaced by class in Dhadak) If not for Manjule, I do not know who was bold enough to do it, perhaps Neeraj Ghaywan? 

On social media, Ambedkarites and Dalit-Bahujans are celebrating Manjule for the above mentioned reasons. However, if you ask me: Was Jhund made for the Dalit-Bahujan audience? As sad as it may sound, the answer is certainly no. 

Jhund stars actors Amitabh Bachchan, Ankush Gedam, Akash Thosar, Rinku Rajguru and others. The film is loosely based on the real-life story of Vijay Barse, a social worker who founded Slum Soccer. Amitabh Bachchan (playing the character of Vijay Borade) reprises his role in the film.

In the film’s title song, the lyrics about Jhund–the slum-dwelling kids, goes like: “Humko duniya ne… Roj Dekha hai.. Phir bhi Andekha…” (The world sees us every day, yet we are invisible). While I was expecting Manjule to show the world of the otherwise ‘invisible’ community, all I was left with was disappointment. 

The problem of Savarna gaze 

Jhund faces the problem of Savarna gaze, where the characters who are residents of Gaddi Godam, a slum, are shown to be carrying immense swag with their funky hairstyles, their jazzy attire, and the way they drive motorcycles. Beyond ‘exoticising’ them by documenting this, Manjule does not delve deeper into their lives.  

In the first half of the movie, the director focuses on the character of Don, or Ankush Masram from Gaddi Godam. Don commits petty crimes to sustain himself, while his father is shown as an alcoholic. Despite Don being a key character in Jhund, there are barely two scenes in which we get to see his family and the relationship they share. The film opens with Don’s mother reprimanding her husband for his alcohol addiction. The scene is well staged. The house is below the railway track where the passengers in the train cannot see them. And from the basement Don emerges while walking on the stairs and joins in admonishing his father. This is the only scene in the film where the camera is inside the house of a Basti, and is filming a regular conversation. There are no other scenes which establish the relationship within their families, their bonding, their aspirations, their food culture. We know them, yet we really do not know them. 

In the movie, Manjule uses the wall that divides the slum from the housing society as a metaphor to juxtapose the division between the upper and the lower castes. Unfortunately, the audience ends up knowing about these characters just like people on the other side of the wall. Like an outsider, the camera is always focused on the empty ground of the slum. It refuses to go inside their houses. In this sense, it is like Amitabh Bachchan’s character. Borade is shown as an upper-caste football coach from the neighbouring housing colony. He lurks around the ground, hoping to find the kids playing there, and at no point in the film does he visit their houses. 

Instead of having scenes, which shows the actual struggles these underprivileged kids face on a day-to-day basis, Manjule shoots a weird documentary-style scene, in which these kids sit around Borade and talk about their struggle and explain to him why they are the way they are. Any Savarna filmmaker could have done this, right? So how is Manjule different from them? 

There is another scene which evokes laughter among the audience. Borade, who has been training the kids from Gaddi Godam, arranges for a friendly-football competition with the youngsters from his college. The tension in this sequence keeps building up. The coach of the opposite team who dislikes the slum-dwellers in his motivational talk asks his team to crush them by a huge margin. He even challenges Borade, while the latter is worried as the kids do not turn up to the match on time. When they finally do, they show up wearing sunglasses and in bright-coloured clothes which are inappropriate for a football match. This humour at their expense is yet another example of Savarna gaze. The kids who sit on the wall watching football matches in the neighbouring college do not know what to wear to a match?

Unwittingly, the video song ‘Lafda Zala’ also makes the film’s narrative evident. While promoting the film’s release at the end of the song, instead of saying ‘In cinemas now’, the film deliberately misspells cinema as ‘cenema.’ Inadvertent errors in English grammar usually noticed in ghettos are a source of ridicule for privileged classes, and this is the same kind of mockery which the film engages in.

Because I am a huge fan of Fandry, I felt let down by this. In the hard-hitting Fandry, towards the climax Jabya (the lead character) is catching a pig with his family, and the entire village watches it like a spectacle, amidst cat-calling. The camera keeps following Jabya and his family and then it almost turns voyeuristic, like the villagers who are making fun with their oppression. And Jabya, who has had enough, hurls a stone which hits the camera and the film ends abruptly. At the end of the film, Manjule poses a deep question to the society and the audience who have been watching the struggle of a marginalised community, and makes them uncomfortable about their privilege. 

Despite these problems, I have to admit I thoroughly enjoyed understanding Manjule’s politics in Jhund. There is a security guard in the film from the North-east part of India, who is perhaps as socially and economically disadvantaged as the slum-dwellers, but his job is to guard the gate and wall, and prevent the slum kids from entering the housing colony. Initially, the guard and the kids are at odds because of this. Though he empathises with the kids, he cannot let them trespass. However, these people eventually become part of the same football team. The way this transition happens on screen is organic and not forced. 

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