I was shown Nagraj Popatrao Manjule’s Fandry for my course in media and cultural studies at TISS and then I went and watched Sairat with my friends in a theatre. It was impossible for me to get my family to watch either of these movies. One of the reasons was that these movies were in Marathi while my family is Hindi-speaking. Their English is not good enough for them to be able to follow or remain interested in subtitles. The other reason was that there was nothing with which I could sell those movies to them. The movies do not have any names they recognize. This precisely was the importance of Amitabh Bachchan in Jhund. Anyone who has tried to sell a film in India will tell you that having a big name attached to the film can do wonders for marketing. I easily convinced my family to watch the movie by saying it’s a new Amitabh Bachchan movie. They didn’t know anything else about it, they didn’t ask anything else about it, they didn’t need to or want to know anything else about it.
‘A new Amitabh movie you say?’
‘Haven’t heard of it, is it good?’
‘Yes, it’s got great reviews.’
‘Alright, let’s go.’
End of conversation and off we go to the movies.
My family, ten of us, went to watch Amitabh Bachchan. What they got was much more, and of course, they enjoyed every bit of it. We even took the children along, who were shouting and cheering as the Gaddi Godam team scored goals in the second half of their soccer match right before the interval. After the film, I asked my family, would you have come to watch this movie if Amitabh Bachchan wasn’t in it. They said no they wouldn’t have. I asked them if they felt cheated that I told them that the movie had Amitabh Bachchan but it wasn’t the regular Bollywood fare. They said they didn’t feel cheated. In fact, they enjoyed the movie very much and were happy to see Amitabh essay such a role. This is the first movie they went to a theatre to watch after the onset of COVID, only because of Amitabh Bachchan. And this brings me to the first point I wish to make in this review. Nagraj Manjule effectively utilized the superstar system to undermine the caste consciousness that upholds the superstar system. Jhund is a family movie which makes perfect use of Amitabh Bachchan to increase its reach into the viewing times of the upper caste. It grabs their eyeballs, so as to speak. Amitabh Bachchan is used as a token to pull affluent audiences in a brilliant coup de grace by Manjule.
The film draws a clear line between those who stand with the people of the slum and those who view them with disdain. After watching the film, as we were driving back home, this point came up. The film shows the youngsters of the slum stealing a number of things, from coal off of trains to petrol from bikes. My father started relating how petrol is regularly stolen from the trucks parked outside our factories at night. My bhua asked him how he knew someone was stealing the petrol and that it wasn’t just the drivers who were selling it on the downlow. My father said they had CCTV footage of youngsters coming and taking it. My bhua asked if those guys were caught if there was CCTV footage.
‘But who will catch them?’
All our servants, drivers, peons, security guards, etc., they all belong to the category of people who ‘steal’, who are from the slums, the people who are looked down upon by us. The thieves are their people and they are not going to sell them out to us. While everybody around us, all those people doing our work for us and all those stealing from us, they all belong together; we, sitting in that car, are the outsiders. My mother agreed with the sentiment and they remembered how all the workers at the rich kid college wanted the Gaddi Godam team to win. The slum kids were theirs; the head coach and the college kids were the aliens. While sitting in that car, it hit all of us, we are the real aliens in the society we call our own.
We have made ourselves aliens by treating the vast majority as outsiders. In our effort to marginalize them, we have also marginalized ourselves. This is the second point I want to make in this review. The film does a very good job of showing the affluent classes that they are the real villains here. The chain snatchers aren’t half as bad as the people they are snatching the chains from. We were all rooting against the rich kids. We are the rich kids. My 8-year-old nephew still goes to that kind of a school and even he was ecstatic when the rich kids lost. The villains in the film are those who treat the slum kids with disdain. We have always treated slum kids with disdain. We realized we are the villains for keeping them downtrodden. It is a powerful thing when a film or a book makes you realize that you are the villain in the social reality that you occupy. If it is at all possible to convert upper castes into human beings, then this film definitely is a positive step in that direction.
My father was the president of a Rotary Club branch in our city. When a person becomes president, one of the first things he does is divide the members of the club into different ‘houses’. He is responsible for giving the houses names. My father wanted the names of the houses to be those of important social reformers in India’s history. He asked me for a list of such names since I am the resident social scientist in our family. I gave him a list which had mostly Bahujan names and no upper caste ones like Nehru, Gandhi, etc. My father rejected that list saying he didn’t know any of the names and the list wouldn’t be acceptable. So, I gave him a list with the usual suspects. There was only one Bahujan name on this second list—that of BR Ambedkar. My father accepted this list. He assigned the names and divided the members. Everyone accepted the names they were given but the members of Ambedkar house. They asked for a change. So, I gave my father Bhagat Singh, which they accepted. My father couldn’t understand why they would reject Ambedkar, since he was the architect of our constitution, and thus a respectable man in my father’s eyes. I explained to him that Ambedkar was born an untouchable and even though he wrote the constitution, he is still not respectable in the eyes of the upper castes. So, if Ambedkar isn’t acceptable, I tried explaining to him, you can imagine just how unacceptable those people are who hold Ambedkar as their prophet, leader and God. He had never met such people and didn’t know what I was talking about. He didn’t know that Jai Bhim is a salutation derived from Ambedkar. He had heard it being used on TV at times but never really made much sense of it.
Jhund foregrounded just how important Ambedkar is to the community and, compared to him, how ephemeral the place of those gods is whom we know and understand. While they celebrate Ambedkar Jayanti with gusto, chant Jai Bhim and utter it as a marker of their pride and a source of their power, the god we understand is shown to be merely a piece of scrap. In front of the living Ambedkar, the god has no place and is rightfully banished from the slum along with other garbage blocking the children’s future. My father saw the people of Ambedkar up close and understood their emotions for the man. He understood in his own way that Ambedkar is as important to them as Mahavira is to us. We say Jai Jinendra and they say Jai Bhim. This film makes sure that people who did not understand Jai Bhim and did not understand just how important Ambedkar is to the people of this country outside of his role as the writer of the constitution, do begin to understand some of that. The film breaking for interval with Amitabh Bachchan paying his respects to Babasaheb is a powerful message for people like my father.
As an upper caste person, I can say that Jhund is a must for the upper castes to watch. As families. Together. Like we watch Shahrukh Khan movies. Like we have always watched Amitabh Bachchan movies. Jhund will make you reflect and have some conversations within your families that you might not have had otherwise. The film is extremely valuable just for the discussions it can spark in upper caste households, just for the soul searching it might force some members of the household to do. Our children watch so many things which increase their disdain for their less fortunate contemporaries. This film is a much-needed effort to counteract the filth that is fed to them by the ‘mainstream’ Indian entertainment industry. Whether the film can take the children out of gutters or not, I can’t say. I can say with some confidence that it can at least take the gand (filth) out of our (upper caste) hearts. Since that is one of the primary reasons for them staying in gutters anyway, I would say the film fights a very important fight. And it doesn’t hurt that Manjule knows how to make an immensely entertaining film, a banger of a movie with all the masala that we usually crave from Bollywood.
Akshat Jain is a writer currently residing in India. He uses the debate methodology of Syādvāda to piss people off. Like a good Syādvādist, he claims that all his claims fall within the ambit of falsifiability.