Jersey (2019)

I managed to see Jersey in the cinema when it first released in April last year, but I’ve been waiting to watch it again and until recently I hadn’t been able to find it anywhere online. However, it’s now available on YT in a Hindi dub, which although not ideal is good enough to remind me of what I enjoyed the first time round, so finally, here are my thoughts on the film.

Jersey tells the story of a cricketer, Arjun (Nani) and his struggles to succeed at his chosen profession, but the film is more than the usual under-dog sports story. The film also explores relationships, the challenges associated with becoming an elite sportsperson later in life and more broadly looks at second chances. At the ripe old age of 36, Arjun has a wife, a young son and bills to pay, which is what initially sparks his return to competition cricket. Once he gets back into the game though, his passion for cricket takes over, but there are numerous obstacles to his success. Not the least of these is the question of whether Arjun has the physical stamina to be a professional cricketer at an age when most are contemplating retirement.

This isn’t a film where you have to know a lot about cricket or even enjoy watching the game to fully engage with the film. While the cricket sequences are beautifully, and realistically shot, the film is more about the passion Arjun has for the game and how this affects his relationships with everyone around him. To understand Arjun’s story there is a flash-back sequence to 1986, which shows him as a confident and successful cricketer at the top of his game. Life is going well, he’s in love with Sarah (Shraddha Srinath) and is on track to win a place in the India team. But when his place is taken by someone with better connections and a larger bribe, the disappointment shatters Arjun’s world and despite his coach Murthy (Sathyaraj) urging him to try again next year, Arjun vows to leave the sport for good.

Ten years later, Arjun is in financial strife due to an enforced absence from work from a union related issue. His wife is frustrated and angry with his disinterest and general apathy for life, while his son Nani (an excellent Ronit Kamra) is pestering him for an Indian cricket jersey for his upcoming birthday. Without cricket Arjun has lost his zeal for life and without a career and unable to provide for his family, his world has become very bleak indeed. Desperate to please his son, Arjun plays a charity match but still doesn’t manage to raise enough money for his son’s birthday present. But once he starts playing, despite his age and various set-backs, Arjun is determined to make his comeback as a successful cricketer.

This is a very human story, and writer/director Gowtham Tinnanuri fills Jersey with heart and emotion while still keeping events moving along. The two components, the cricketing journey and the various relationships, complement each other well and the film benefits from Nani’s superb performance as Arjun. Initially he’s impetuous and brash – a typical young man who has the world at his feet and knows it. Later, he completely captures the heartache and depression that comes with Arjun’s failures in life and contrasts this with the passion and excitement that comes with his second chance at success. What stands out is just how believable he is in the role and how quickly Nani pulls the audience into his world. There is a moment where the older Arjun learns he has made the Hyderabad team and his celebration as an older player is a perfect contrast with his exuberance as a younger player. It’s also a pointed comparison between the older Arjun being selected and the younger not making it into the India team. I also liked the way the relationship between Ramya (Sanusha) and up and coming cricketer Nandan Reddy (Viswant Duddumpudi) mirrors the earlier romance between Arjun and Sarah and provides another link between the events of 1996 and 1986.

Central to the story is Arjun’s relationship with his son. The jersey of the film title is the India shirt that Nani wants for his birthday, but which is much too expensive for Arjun to buy.  Ronit Kamra is excellent in the role of Arjun’s son and there is such good rapport between him and Nani. This feels like a true father/son relationship and there is plenty of warmth and emotion in every interaction. Nani’s hero worship of his father is the only positive part of Arjun’s world and it’s beautiful to watch Arjun develop as a father in response to his son’s expectations. The flip side is the father/son relationship between Arjun and his coach Murthy, who has always acted more like a father to him. Both relationships are well written and expertly performed by all involved and I enjoyed finding the similarities and the differences in both relationships.

Also pivotal to the story is Arjun’s wife Sarah and Shraddha Srinath is excellent in the role. Her portrayal is realistic, particularly when faced with a husband who seems unable to do even the smallest of tasks around the home. She perfectly captures the exasperation and hurt of dealing with someone she loves who appears to be self-destructing before her eyes without ever seeing that she is struggling to cope as well. It’s such a true to life scenario and Shraddha gets all those complicated emotions across in her performance. The romance is also sweet and nicely developed although there is a fight sequence between Arjun and his fellow teammates about Sarah which does seem rather pointless and unnecessary. 

While the story of Arjun’s comeback works well and the various emotional rollercoaster moments follow a reasonably predictable beat, the end has a twist that just doesn’t seem to fit well into the rest of the story. I found this to be a jarring note in an otherwise well-written story that really wasn’t necessary. Like any sports film, the overcoming of adversity is enough in its own right, and when added to the well developed relationships here, nothing else was really required, and in fact the twist detracts rather than adds to the story. But that’s a small grumble in an otherwise very enjoyable movie. I really like this film and wish it was more readily available as I’d happily watch it again. Although I might skip the very end. 4 ½ stars.

Awe

Awe takes a crack at some familiar material, trying to deliver something new. And it is something new in the context of mainstream Telugu film, far from the usual mass hero driven shenanigans. But it reminded me of a couple of  Hollywood films, and Prasanth Varma is a bit heavy handed and clearly doesn’t want anyone to miss out on his cleverness. This was a film I wanted to love but I was left mildly underwhelmed.

SPOILER ALERT! I want to mention a couple of ideas the film plays with so I will have a few spoilers. But I will leave a few surprises.

Radha (Eesha Rebba) waits at a restaurant with her parents. They’re going to meet her partner, Krish, for the first time. Krish sounds like exactly what her parents wanted for Radha; a doctor, same caste, only child. But Krish is a woman (Nityha Menen). We jump into the story of Nala (Priyardarshi Pullikonda) a down on his luck man trying out for a job as a cook. He is clueless but luckily a wise talking fish (voiced by Nani) is there to help and a talking tree (voiced by Ravi Teja) is there because there weren’t enough comedy uncles in the cast. The episodes spool by. A precocious little girl Moksha (Kaitlyn) has a battle of magic and wits with a rude, overbearing magician (Murli Sharma). A doorman (Srinivas Avasarala) is building a time machine so he can go find his parents. But then the mysterious Parvathi (Devadarshini) arrives from the future to stop him. Mira (Regina Cassandra) is plotting a heist with her boyfriend, and the stress and the drugs she takes trigger interesting hallucinations or maybe something more sinister. In between the scene shifts to Kali (Kajal Aggarwal), a woman in obvious distress who is waiting for a sign.

The stories and their locations seem unrelated initially so the jumping around was a bit irritating as episodes terminate in a cliffhanger. As the film loops back to pick up the various stories the location and times merge into one quirky looking food court, and the characters start to be seen in each other’s worlds. The set design is kind of shoddy and obviously fake which also puzzled me at first. The morse code device looked like a prop from a low budget school play. But like Pizza, a lot of things make much more sense after a point. It’s a bit risky leaving things looking half baked until that clicks for the audience. If you miss all the hints it is spelled out by the end. The one dimensional characters also make more sense once you realise how they relate back to one particular person and how they colour the way the others are depicted.

Because the story is told in quite a gimmicky way I didn’t feel the actors were all able to rise above the material. Murli Sharma is trapped in a tedious story and not even his wild overacting could get him out of it. Priyadarshi didn’t really hit his stride until the latter part of his story. And no matter how I consider it, I can’t see how the fish and the tree fit into the overarching conceit of the film other than to get some more star names on the poster. Rohini was fun and still heartfelt as Radha’s mum, struggling not to let her disapproval break a vow of silence.. Regina Cassandra has presence and Mira is a challenging role in some respects, being an unlikeable and untrustworthy person. She seems like a misfit in the largely family friendly ensemble of characters but may be the most real.

Prasanth Varma was ambitious in his treatment of a film without a Hero. A bit of research on female psychology and gender would have helped enormously with the execution. Kajal was unusually sombre as Kali and did her best to show the confusion and pain of long term mental illness and emotional damage. Her character made one particular choice that didn’t ring true and a cursory Google would have told the writer to choose something else. But having a happy and openly lesbian couple is such a positive change in representation in Indian films, I can’t whinge too much. And good on Nithya Menen for giving Krish a go. She was cheeky, a bit irreverent, loved the ladies and all in all embraced her namesake as a role model. But Krish’s explanation of why Radha identified as gay was more driven by the plot than any nuanced analysis, overly simplistic but I think well intentioned. There is some truth in saying some women could reduce psychological issues if they spoke up about being assaulted and got help, but there was almost no consideration that the better solution is for men to stop raping women. Everything comes back to women having to save themselves.

It’s a good film but I wanted great. I saw the big reveal coming from a mile away, so I wanted more from the characterisation and the detail of living this life. See it and see what you think.

Ninnu Kori

Ninnu Kori had the potential to be good. I like the concept, and it is rare to see a first love is not the only love story. Unfortunately Shiva Nirvana squandered a great cast on a badly written screenplay full of paternalistic BS.

Uma (Nani) meets Pallavi (Nivetha Thomas) when she suddenly decides he must teach her to dance. The moment he touches her, he falls in love. Pallavi takes longer to succumb, and their developing friendship and ensuing romance is among the few highlights. Uma rents the upstairs room at Pallavi’s family home, carrying on a clandestine romance under the eagle eye of her dad (Murali Sharma). Uma seems to have no family, is a PhD student with no job lined up, and he doesn’t seem inclined to try too hard. Pallavi begs him to marry her as while she will elope and upset her parents, she won’t disgrace the whole family by running away after they fix a match. He overhears her father interfering in another family’s elopement issue and the speech about what fathers know their daughters need hits home. Pallavi’s marriage is arranged in Vizag while Uma is studying in Delhi. She calls him in a last ditch attempt, but he talks over her about his own news. So Pallavi marries Arun (Aadhi Pinisetty) who seems nice despite a penchant for Disney songs. They move to the US and life is good. Until Uma turns up determined to “save” Pallavi from what he believes must be a loveless marriage.

The film sounds promising as it acknowledges that it is fine to have a past, and it is OK to move on from an unsuccessful relationship. Sadly almost every time someone made a good or thoughtful point, they then pretty much did the opposite of what they said. When Uma says not to interfere between Arun and Pallavi, the next scene is of Uma and others engineering a confrontation between the spouses.

According to Kona Venkat’s screenplay, under NO circumstances should you ask a woman what is important to her. Men must only ever discuss this with another man, preferably one with his own agenda or, even better, no idea at all. Rather than tell Pallavi the truth, Arun shared an admittedly touching scene with Uma where Uma was forced to realise he was the equivalent of a cocaine fuelled suicidal ex wannabe girlfriend. Several men in the audience applauded while I wondered why Arun couldn’t be honest with his wife but could spill his guts to the guy trying to replace him.

Shiva Nirvana takes all the cheap shots, and none of them necessary. Pallavi’s best friend Kavita had to be a fat chick and the butt of some mean one-liners. Addiction and mental illness were treated flippantly as a now you see it now you don’t excuse for Uma’s shenanigans. A black actor was cast as a knife wielding mugger while most of the other American extras were white.

At the end of the film Uma grandly states he has learned his lesson and will marry first, fall in love after. I have no issue with arranged marriages, but I take exception to the man who behaved like a dick being applauded for deciding to bestow himself upon some poor woman. He constantly put himself first, blamed everyone else if he didn’t get what he wanted, and took advantage of Arun and Pallavi’s kindness. What a catch. What a hero.

Nani is the Simon the Likeable of Telugu cinema and I blame him for making me stay beyond half time. In the first stage of Uma’s love for Pallavi, Nani plays him as a genuine, nice, boy next door type. He is playful and affectionate, and wants to get his degree and a job before marrying Pallavi. Once she marries Arun, Uma becomes an alcoholic which Nani demonstrates by sporting a beard and drinking so hard he almost bites the top off a hipflask. When Uma goes to stay with Arun and Pallavi he is all spite and manipulative snark. His snide remarks got lots of laughs but despite good comedic timing I wanted to kick him. Pallavi tells him she is happy, but Uma knows better. He couldn’t move on, how can she?

Pallavi starts out as a bit daft but eventually, perhaps in spite of the screenplay, Nivetha Thomas develops her character into a lovely young woman. Her grief at their break up and her anger at Uma’s selfishness are portrayed with restraint and judgement. When Pallavi thinks Arun has cheated, Nivetha made the melodrama feel grounded in Pallavi’s previous experience. She had some strong dialogue, and Pallavi was willing and able to articulate her feelings, but the men only listen to themselves. Pallavi was hurt to think that Uma was wallowing in pain because he assumed she was miserable while I was upset that he never listened to her.

Aadhi Pinisetty has a quiet energy that plays off Nani’s more extrovert childish antics. At first I thought Arun was a bit wet, but Aadhi shows the reaction and immediate squashing down of his feelings. He and Nivetha have a different chemistry, convincing as a settled couple. And because husbands are heroes, he also got to beat someone up. I was very distracted by his unfortunate 70s blow wave though. I’m going to blame the director because he bollocksed up so many other things he may as well cop the hair crimes too.

Tanikella Bharani is understated in a small role as Uma’s professor and mentor, in as much as a mentor calls on an ex to sort out his most brilliant student’s life. Balireddy Pruthviraj is Lovababu, Pallavi’s (comedy) uncle. I can’t really fault any of the support actors, except for the usual “any white person will do, especially one in a bikini” extras.

Gopi Sunder’s soundtrack is adequate without being memorable. The background score is hamfisted with crashing percussion to indicate drama, and strings and synths denoting romance. The visual language is clunky, and things that probably sounded cool look amateurish in execution (e.g. Uma splashing water on his face cutting to a crashing wave).  There are vague attempts to paper over some plot holes and some very awkward exposition. The pace is uneven, wallowing in Uma’s angst while speeding past pivotal moments.

The film is a mansplainer’s delight and Uma, who behaves appallingly, is constantly rewarded for being an arse. I was disappointed by Ninnu Kori, and don’t recommend it because of the stupidity and toxic messages disguised as respect for tradition and the power of love.