What has changed between 2019 and 2022? Evidently a lot. Not for Shahid Kapoor, though, who returns in yet another remake of a hit Telugu-language film. As in Kabir Singh, he has a bike and a beard — though trimmed shorter — and his propensity for violence is tempered by a sense of middle age guilt. Or is it? Jersey, directed by Gowtam Tinnanuri, is nowhere as problematic as the Sandeep Reddy Vanga megahit from three years ago. It’s a rather emotional tale of a father and a son, and a promise kept through time. Yet, in terms of hero-worshipping, it’s hard to tell the two films apart.
Take an early flashback. Arjun Talwar (Shahid) is a star domestic cricketer in Punjab in the mid-80s. His coach calls him on to bat, but Arjun has disappeared. He’s canoodling in a backroom with his girlfriend, Vidya (Mrunal Thakur), and can’t be bothered to stay on ground. A friend covers for him, as sidekicks around Shahid tend to do. Afterwards, as Vidya leaves and someone passes a comment, Arjun is quick to beat up the guy. The sequence is present in the original Jersey-this is an almost scene-for-scene remake-but I sensed an encore being offered up to the Kabir Singh cult.
Arjun quits cricket at the top of his game and takes up a government job. He loses that too, on a bribery charge. By now he’s married to Vidya and has a son, Kittu. The boy grows up, and, for his forthcoming birthday, demands an Indian Cricket Team jersey. Arjun, broke, and unemployed, tries his best to gather Rs 500 rupees for the gift. When all else fails, he agrees on the prodding of his former coach Sharma (Pankaj Kapur) to return for a game. It’s for a Punjab-New Zealand charity match, Sharma tells him, the word ‘charity’ not registering with the reenergized Arjun.
For almost an hour, Jersey shows us a gaunt, dejected, self-pitying man. But the moment he reaches the pitch, he’s transformed. 36-year-old Arjun bats with the same power and precision-if not more-of the young lad of 26. The years of smoking, drinking, and lack of regimen have had no effect (as a thought experiment, imagine your favourite cricketer in his place). Heroic determination-which Arjun has plenty of-is passed off as heroic skill. It’s no surprise, then, that he rejects Sharma’s offer to join him as an assistant coach. Instead, he thunders, he wants to return as a player.
Arjun’s efforts to stage a comeback several years past his prime drive the rest of the story. The film offers a simple, sentimental explanation for this. “I can’t let myself down in Kittu’s eyes,” he says. The realisation dawns suddenly; he’s hardly the ideal father before it. Vidya-who earns, cooks and runs the household, and has to relay basic instructions to her husband-is seen as unbelieving when she suggests a practical solution to their problems. Gowtam doesn’t complicate the family dynamic (a better, less romanticized portrayal of a nuclear family with an unemployed father can be seen in Anurag Kashyap’s Choked).
Shahid is physically solid throughout the multiple matches in the 170-minute film. But his star value-now more than ever-seems to get in the way of his performance. He plays a version of the sulking entitled alpha, only reined in. His Arjun has two modes: stoutly electric on the field; sad and broody outside of it. The transitions, when they happen, are hard, like the scene where he goes from getting a pep-talk from Sharma to a moment of unprompted swagger. There’s not much humour to him, something Pankaj Kapur-a master of quiet and subtle variations-introduces easily in his character. Who’s your daddy, eh?
Late in Jersey, there’s a revelation detailing why Arjun had quit his career so early, and why he came back. It encourages us to see him as more than an anguished, self-centered man. I wish this trajectory was better laid out in the film. Our sense of surprise is dampened by what comes before. Arjun, even at his lowest, is a hero. It’s only predictable he’d go off on a high.
Cast: Shahid Kapoor, Mrunal Thakur, Pankaj Kapur, Ronit Kamra, Anjum Batra
Director: Gowtam Tinnanuri