This is #CriticalMargin, where Ishita Sengupta gets contemplative over new Hindi films and shows. Today: Ghoomer.
Last Updated: 01.52 AM, Aug 18, 2023
The following post contains some spoilers for Ghoomer.
HINDI films, especially those centering on sports, often depict male brilliance a certain way. It manifests in tortured, self-destructive men, in a prolonged war with themselves. Two of the most iconic sports films in the last two decades, Nagesh Kukunoor’s Iqbal (2005) and Shimit Amin’s Chak De! India (2007) feature broken and astute men who aspire for redemption through someone else. Granted this is not a definitive reading — but irascible, tormented men are often treated as a shorthand of brilliance just as this distinct brand of brilliance is used to absolve irascible, tormented men. Ghoomer, R Balki’s latest outing, unfolds as a reiteration of this troubled, gifted male coach-meets-prodigy premise, blithely heedless about its datedness and problematic undertones.
Padam Singh Sodhi aka Paddy (Abhishek Bachchan) is a snappy, irritable alcoholic who spends his time demeaning everyone around him. He is a prick. Many years ago, in the ‘70s, he was selected in the Indian cricket team. While playing his first match, he suffered an injury which diminished his chances of playing for the team again. Although he made runs at the state level, his selection in the national team remained a faraway dream. Someone else might have started a coaching institute, probably even moved on. Not Paddy. Wearing an oversized hoodie and eyes sunk in, he reeks of bitterness still and uses his membership to an upscale cricket club to drink whiskey during happy hours. Then there is Anina (Saiyami Kher), a bright, upcoming cricketer whose towering talent ensures an early selection in the Indian cricket team. But on the day of the announcement, she meets with an accident and loses her right arm.
Seven-feature film old Balki has a gimmick-sized problem. Take any of his work and his eagerness in opting for quirky concepts surfaces as a nagging pattern: a 30-something woman falls in love with a 60-something man (Cheeni Kum, 2007), a mute actor borrows voice from someone else (Shamitabh, 2015) and tricks the rest, film critics are killed for their dishonest reviews (Chup: Revenge of The Artist, 2022). This, of course, would not have been a problem (Ayushmann Khurrana would have fewer films in that case) if his treatment was not facile. The filmmaker’s preoccupation to dazzle with an off-kilter idea is so strong that it overhauls everything else, rendering the central plot gimmicky in its intent.
Ghoomer is no different. It opens with acknowledging Hungarian shooter Károly Takács. He had won two Olympic golds (1948 and 1952) with his left hand after injuring his right. In his latest outing, Balki uses Takács’ story to portray a tale of fortitude and resilience. The sport is changed to cricket and the person at the centre is a woman. After the mishap, Anina refuses to be bogged down. Under the tutelage of Paddy (they meet), she trains for months and becomes a left-handed spinner from a right-handed batswoman, earning a spot in the women’s
national cricket team. For all intent and purposes this is the ‘idea’ Balki wants to float. Like a detail that fits right into his cinematic universe of intellectual trickery, the name Anina is chosen because it is a palindrome and hints at the bowling action Paddy comes up with for her to accrue momentum.
As a film about a sport — not a sports film — Ghoomer is not all that bad. But then the standard is not too high. When it comes to stories about women athletes, Hindi films do not have the best reputation. In the last three years, there has been a punishing Rashmi Rocket (2021), an equally insufferable Saina (2021), a woeful Shabaash Mithu (2022). Then there is Taapsee Pannu, the in-house performer entrusted with the task of essaying most of these roles. Balki’s venture benefits from the presence of Saiyami Kher, an uneven actor but technically sound cricketer. The film does not shy away from milking this as it makes space for extensive scenes of her playing or training. Kher imbues the role with believability even as her incompetence in the emotionally-driven moments threatens to undo her effort.
Fortunately, it is not the only thing working against Ghoomer. Pretty much everything else feels designed to crush its potential. Let’s talk about the dialogues. For a film on a specially-abled athlete, the outing takes it on itself to make all the ‘left-hand jokes’ that exist. When Paddy meets a dejected Anina (entering her room right when she says words like ‘I want to die’ aloud), he says, “Ek haath se jaan lena mushkil hain lekin India ke liye khelna baaye haath ka khel ho sakta hain” (It might be difficult to kill oneself with one hand but easy to play for India), when someone asks Paddy if Anina is left-handed, he quips she only has a left hand (“lefty hain?” “Left hi hain”). These wisecracks come freely, unnecessarily as if Ghoomer is convinced that by telling the story it does, it automatically gains a moral high ground and leeway to be insensitive.
Writing is a constant issue. If the film is designed as a rousing advertisement, every line is scripted as a punchline. Anina lives with her two brothers, a sweet father (Shivendra Singh Dungarpur, the filmmaker and archivist), and a doting grandmother (Shabana Azmi) whose entire personality is a reaction to sexist taunts like women can’t play cricket. She accompanies Anina to matches, keeps tabs on her score, makes smoothies for her and walks about spouting facts about cricket. When they sit together as a family, Azmi’s character tells her slacker male grandson, “Mera mutual fund bhi mature ho gaya, tum kab hoge?” (“My mutual funds have also matured, when will you be?”). Kher is introduced in a scene where she is playing cricket while two men indulge in teasing her. She proceeds to hit one of them with a ball and says. “Aaj kal ladkiyon ka power badd raha hain” (“Women have more power these days”). You get the drift.
This tendency of the writers (Rahul Sengupta, Rishi Virmani and Balki are credited) to use easy crutches for heavy-lifting percolates in other things. For one, it is impossible to know who Anina is when not playing cricket. There is an opaqueness about her like the three men helming the writing had no idea of a female athlete beyond her athleticism. When she loses her hand, her anguish and self-pity is crystallised in one song. When she feels motivated, her zeal is packed in one song. Her sense of self is neither explored nor evoked. The only trait of Anina I gathered is that physical fighting is her love language. Jeet (Angad Bedi in yet another sports film) is this neighbourhood boy who has been in love with her since childhood. Anina reciprocates this by beating him up. If this is supposed to hint at her social awkwardness, I am personally offended.
But I know what it is: Ghoomer’s lack of curiosity towards the protagonist. The film culminates in a cricket match (India wins, counting for a double spoiler at the moment) which plays out no differently from the last scene of any other underdog story. But Balki’s outing becomes all the more revealing for it, outlining that although the central focus is on a woman’s perseverance and brilliance, it has no understanding of it. By the time we come to witness Anina’s skills, it is wrapped in excess. She manages to do everything not just because she is that good but because the male filmmaker knows no other way to depict female competence other than exaggeration.
Compare this to the way it chooses to depict Paddy and it becomes clear. To be fair, his is a terribly written role mired in cliches. Bachchan tries but sincerity cannot be counted for credibility (it helps though that Amitabh Bachchan appears in the most annoying cameo of this decade, making the son look better). He is particularly bad in scenes where he is supposed to be drunk and slur. As a character he is not just unlikeable but downright terrible. Ghoomer, however, uses these to underline his generosity and then uses that to vindicate him. It is embarrassing how far it goes to replicate and justify this prototype of troubled, male virtuosity without levelling a single question against it.
There are several examples of it but the most troubling bit is the inclusion of Rasika (Ivanka Das), a trans woman who Paddy had helped with the operation and probably even shelter. She treats him as a brother and he treats her like a bully. He snaps, screams and at one point throws a ball at her. As if, not unlike the film he is in, Paddy is convinced that his one act of kindness lends him the moral high ground and leeway to be insensitive. Rasika remains unfazed because he is a good man, tortured but gifted and good-hearted. She exists to evoke sympathy for the central male figure, redeem him in our eyes even when he is beyond redemption.
Hindi films often depict terrible men in a certain way. Their flaws are romanticised, the shortcomings are glossed over. And on the off chance a character displays some ability, the narrative is arranged in reverence of him. In that regard Balki does nothing new but that he designs a twist at that end, knowing fully well it will make Paddy look worse, highlights how certain he and the other writers are of men being absolved if only they possess a spark of merit, a cell of kindness. For me, this was more worrying than watching Azmi squint while wearing glasses in the film.
(Disclaimer: The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of OTTplay. The author is solely responsible for any claims arising out of the content of this column.)