Jada, which tells yet another story about an underdog football team, begins with an animated stretch that traces the origin of football to medieval Europe. These parts, which hint at the absence of traditional rules and the inherently barbaric nature of the game, make us sit up in anticipation of a gritty tale. And it begins well enough, with a local football match, which, at first glance, appears to be the soccer-equivalent of our modest gully-cricket. Two local teams seem to be fighting it out in an unremarkable rhythm, very reminiscent of a bet match taking place at a Corporation playground near your home. But Kathir, who plays the protagonist, Jada, and the captain of one of the warring teams, gets an introduction shot befitting a national-level champion. He’s destined to be one, you think. But then, Yogi Babu too gets a rousing opening. “How can this fat guy run, let alone kick the ball?” someone says. The man responds with a carefully-choreographed penalty kick. Another team member, who has a weakness for girls, rushes to the ground straight out of a hook-up. The others just exist. That’s the most we learn about this team for the entirety of the film. Jada’s character, in fact, doesn’t even have the inkling of an arc, let alone the makings of a hero’s journey.
Stories of triumphant underdogs, especially in sports, are, by their nature, ripe with cliches. A smart filmmaker, however, will paint these ‘must-haves’ in distinct shades and keep things interesting. Unfortunately, debutant Kumaran doesn’t quite manage this in Jada. Jada, who’s talented in football, wants to play a tournament for avenging the on-field murder of his mentor. This is not a bad one-liner. But, what must have have been a high-stakes emotional drama ends up as a dull genre-bender, because of the uninspired writing.
Apart from the obvious joblessness, there’s nothing that makes the players stand out. We get an interesting character in the form of a deaf-and-mute player, who is revealed to be the coach’s son. And yet another, in the form of an injured football star, who sticks around with the coach, just because he can’t imagine life without the sport. But these characters are not fleshed out. When this injured guy gets to feel the high of a ‘coach’, we are supposed to cheer for him. When the coach’s son breaks down on hearing that his long-indifferent father has gifted him a shoe, we are meant to feel his tears of joy. These moments of high on paper are supposed to hit us hard, but they don’t. They fall flat, just like the rest of the first half. They just exist as ideas and plot points. These needed to be fleshed out into scenes with pay-offs.
The thing that hurts Jada the most, however, is the absence of a worthy opponent. It does not always have to be a formidable team to beat. It could be a stern father or some other internal conflict that the lead needs to overcome — something that would make us root for the underdogs. Nothing of this sort exists in Jada. The two main antagonists are so cartoonishly evil that at times, they make us laugh.
To makes matters worse, all the teams that Jada beats seem uniformly populated by players with the craft and maturity of high-schoolers. The matches themselves offer nothing new. There are neither clever game-tactics nor emotional highs. They just... happen. At times, they are hyper-edited to give the illusion of thrills — but there’s not a single original manoeuvre that makes us go ‘wow’. All these, including the really bad spatial choreography in the games, leave us indifferent to the fate of the players. We can’t see them as a ‘team’, let alone an underdog team.
Post interval, the film moves into the horror-thriller genre with better success. Several jump-scares follow, with a few actually managing to spook us. We do guess the presence of a vengeful spirit, but the film does well by playing with those tropes. Two scenes in particular — one involving a locked car, and another a bicycle — play out to brilliant results. I guess it also has to do with events gradually becoming so preposterous that the whatever-next factor pulls us through.
The film abruptly finds its resolution, but the questions don’t. What happened to the coach’s son? What’s with the heroine, who appears for five minutes in the first half? What happened to the other bad guy? Or in broader terms, what does it say about a film, when you walk in expecting a gritty sports drama and come out taking solace in the not-so-bad horror thrills?
Cast: Kathir, Yogi Babu, Kishore