'Jungle Cry' Review: A lousy try with no larger point

If I had a penny for every time the word ‘underdog’ is mentioned when a sports film comes out, I would be a millionaire.
A still from Jungle Cry.
A still from Jungle Cry.

If I had a penny for every time the word ‘underdog’ is mentioned when a sports film comes out, I would be a millionaire. Jungle Cry on Lionsgate Play is a wikiHow article on making a sports drama or an underdog film. Now, what do we need for a sports film? A team of the downtrodden? Check. An authority figure disbelieving in their abilities? Check. A comic scene where a player can’t adjust to the process of boarding his first flight? A sore defeat in the introductory match with a Goliath-like team? The team rebel playing for the collective in the final match? Check, check, check.

Jungle Cry is like eating samples of all ice-cream flavours but never getting the full taste. While watching the film, I kept thinking, “Ok, what next?” Then I sighed because, well, I knew. The plot is simple. Twelve kids from the tribal community who study at the Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences (KISS) learn the alien sport of Rugby in four months and win the U-14 Rugby World Cup.

The visualization, however, is simplistic. The film starts off with Kabir Bedi’s baritone, introducing the story, offering nothing more than the synopsis. For some reason, I am reminded of a war documentary, where a platoon of twenty soldiers beat all odds and defeated an army of 200. We know the what, it’s how it is being told that matters.

In a year where we have Nagaraj Manjule’s Jhund, Jungle Cry was expected to innovate the tried and tested genre. It, however, in Rugby terms, doesn’t even try. The narrative is like an ellipsoidal ball being passed from one point of the sports-drama checklist to another, never really reaching the climactic goal.

From the first scene of Stewart Wright as real-life Rugby coach Paul Walsh taking a cab ride in the twisty lanes of Bhubaneswar and witnessing a group of tribal boys running and passing a jar of marbles, unknowingly demonstrating an acumen for Rugby, the approach is documentary-like. It continues with characters turning talking heads and laying down the narrative, even their emotions to the camera. It would have been better if the real-life people the actors portrayed told the story. Jungle Cry can’t decide between taking creative liberties and being factual. In the process, it breaks the foremost rule of art: Show, don’t tell.

The story is of cracking caste barriers through sport but the film shies away from its core. There is a distance from the characters. We see Abhay Deol (who plays real-life coach Rudraksh Jena) visiting villages and spotting players for his football team (which later becomes the Rugby team). He traverses through the hinterland, narrating how they are divided based on food, and caste. I yearned to know more about the inner lives of these twelve boys. How do they navigate through poverty and biases, and seek to be seen and heard? Though, for the film, their stories are just a touch and run.

The characters do not invoke any interest, owing to their lack of depth. Except, Abhay Deol. His Rudra is thankfully not a cliché coach fighting for his team and believing in their abilities despite all odds. He starts as being distrustful of their capabilities to ace a foreign sport. When he finally agrees, he is overly stern. He is like a rigid father who confuses bondage with care. Although later, he lets go. “I am like this because that’s how I was taught,” he says to a character. It’s true that sports films have a set template and need to fall into it. Jungle Cry, however, is too meek. It squeals where it should have roared.

Film: Jungle Cry
Director: Sagar Ballary
Cast: Abhay Deol, Emily Shah, Atul Kumar
Streaming on: Lionsgate Play

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