The overwhelming popularity of Cricket in India is a vicious cycle as the ever widening audience is influenced by the media’s solipsistic coverage of the sport. This ensures that developments and progress made to any other sport in the country is almost buried to the larger audience. Thus interesting stories like the one documented in “Jungle Cry” are met with curiosity and interest by the audience. It is sadder to comprehend that the 2007 T20 World Cup win dashed any hopes of relevant exposure for the Junior Rugby Team of India and its win in the International Junior Rugby Competition (held in the UK). “Jungle Cry” seeks to retell that story.
The film follows 12 underprivileged orphan children from the Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences (KISS) in Odisha, who were selected by Paul Walsh after a rigorous training regimen to comprise the Junior Rugby team of India and represent it in the World Cup being held in the UK. It is an inspiring one on paper, and the perfect vehicle to craft a theatrical sports film, a genre we are inundated with but still heartwarming to watch because of the quintessential underdog nature of its storytelling.
But the film manages to shoot itself in the foot from its basic premise itself. The movie is supposed to explore how sport is a common uniting factor irrespective of caste and religion and how determination and belief in oneself is the primary ingredient responsible for shooting a ball over the bar and converting knowledge into wins. However, the narrative of this film chooses to explore the psyche and the emotional upheavals of the coaches and trainers of these kids, while also touching on the origins of these kids in as superficial a manner as possible. It is never a good idea to criticize a movie’s storytelling approach while comparing it to another film from a critical standpoint as it is a lazy one. In a world where Nagraj Manjule’s Jhund exists, however, “Jungle Cry” feels like a missed opportunity of epic proportions. Whereas the USP of Jhund was Manjule’s insistence on exploring the psyche and emotional arc of these slum kids and their story and the difficulties faced in dealing with a circuitous and Kafkaesque bureaucracy as well as their circumstances, “Jungle Cry” doesn’t exhibit any inclination to venture deeper, beyond highlighting a hatred between Barial and Rajkishore based on their caste, and even that feels almost guarded in its approach.
Abhay Deol’s film wants you to feel like you are watching an ESPN 30 by 30 documentary, to the extent that the characters like Rudra (Abhay Deol), Roshni (Emily Shah), and all the other staff and administrative heads are shown via talking heads as they recount events being shown on screen. It breaks the cardinal rule of “Show, Don’t Tell” while also feeling like a baffling choice for two specific reasons. Firstly, if the makers wanted to make a documentary about this event, why not interview the actual people instead of the actors playing the said people. It doesn’t come off as Meta or exhibit any artistic uniqueness. Secondly, if a documentary approach had been the way to go, why not interview the kids who took part in the tournament as well? If not the actual kids, interview the actors playing the kids as per the format of the story structure. A lack of depth in the character arcs, as well as the conspicuous absence of these kids in the interview segments, compounds the problems of this film, which is already a by-the-numbers sports drama, ticking off a list of checkmarks of important moments familiar with films of this genre.
As the movie version of “rugby for dummies,” “Jungle Cry” works well in educating the viewer about the sport. The story structure is conducive to such, as both Rudra, a football coach who reluctantly becomes a rugby coach, and the kids are unfamiliar with the rules and minutiae of the sports. “Jungle Cry” is not an exhaustive look at rugby, but it explains the basics of the game well enough that viewers will be able to slot the nuances of the sport into the mechanics of the genre and effectively follow the movie along. From the perspective of visualization of the sport, director Sagar Ballary shoots the sports sequences well, without resorting to cheating via editing. The interaction between Rudra and the kids, as well as the relationship between Rudra and Roshni, is a highlight. This might be a personal take, but I appreciated that the character of Rudra starts at Roshni’s apartment (on her sofa), but this inherent proximity, both from a physical and emotional standpoint, did not translate to a romantic relationship. It was also interesting how Rudra’s technique of managing the kids felt very constrained and militarized, and the movie made an effort to show the kids rebelling against the constraints. However, as the film is under two hours, the resolution of all the conflicts is simplistic because the ultimate cathartic high of the sports biopic needs to line up with the events of the true story.
“Jungle Cry” is a decent cinematic adaptation of a far more compelling true story. Its choice of protagonists highlights its wasted potential. Ballary’s cinematic choice of making the movie a narrative and documentary hybrid feels baffling. However, its by-the-numbers structure ensures that you won’t be bored as its pacing is crisp and it hits all of the required checkmarks with precision, anchored by a reliable performance from Abhay Deol and the rest of the cast, as well as some raw performances from the kids as well.
“Jungle Cry” is a 2022 Sports Drama film directed by Sagar Ballary.