Jungle Cry review: Abhay Deol’s sports drama plays it safe with tried-and-tested tropes, misses the goal by a mile
Jungle Cry review: The rugby film starring Abhay Deol is an earnest attempt to show the real-life journey of Odisha's tribal boys winning a global tournament. But it falls flat due to bad writing.
The genre of sports dramas in India has become quite densely populated in the last few years. For years, Indian filmmakers stayed away from sports films. But the last decade or so has made up for it by churning out more underdog stories from the field of sports. But that means that films must now work hard to distinguish themselves from the herd. That is where Abhay Deol’s latest release Jungle Cry fails. The film, based on the real story of on a group of tribal boys, who won the under-14 Rugby World Cup, employs the usual tropes and ends up being more predictable than thrilling. Also read: Abhay Deol says he has been gaslit for being himself: ‘Have had directors slag me in public and spread lies about me’
Directed by Sagar Ballary, Jungle Cry follows an English rugby coach, who arrived in India in the mid-2000s looking for young boys to train in the sport, and take them to London for the 2007 under-14 Rugby World Cup. He found his players in Odisha’s (then Orissa) Kalinga Institute; but the catch is that the kids don’t even know the sport. They play football; and their football coach Rudra (Abhay Deol) isn’t too enthused about the idea either. Jungle Cry is the story about how these young tribal children not only learn a new sport in four months, but go to UK and beat the best young rugby players in the world. Sadly, when the real Jungle Cats won the cup, they did not get the press coverage a win like that would merit. The film, as Abhay Deol said while promoting it, “sets out to right some wrongs”.
In conversation with Hindustan Times while promoting the film, Abhay spoke about what differentiates Jungle Cry from other underdog sports dramas. “First of all the sport! It’s on rugby. Who plays rugby in India? Clearly a niche sport,” he said. It’s an honest answer but quite limited. Apart from the fact that it is on rugby, there is actually very little different or new in Jungle Cry. The film follows the same tropes, same formulae that several before it have used, and far more effectively than this.
At the core of every engaging sports film, or any underdog story for that matter, is drama. It drives the narrative forward. But despite it being a story about tribal boys playing rugby against the big boys, Jungle Cry lacks that drama. It’s hard not to draw comparisons with similar films like Jhund or Chak De! India. Both of those utilised the tropes and infused off-field drama and tension quite effectively. But in Jungle Cry, the roadblocks these boys face seem to evaporate quite quickly. At no point do you feel that they are being challenged or facing insurmountable odds. It all happens quite smoothly. For that reason, we never feel fully invested in their supposed uphill battle.
The film follows a mockumentary style, where the coaches are being interviewed about the incident ‘in the present day’. Their voice-overs and narrations follow and dominate the narrative. And that is the film’s biggest mistake. At no point does the director trust the audience to follow what is happening on the screen. The character must always tell the audience what is happening, what they are feeling, and everything else, too.
Sample this: In a scene where Abhay’s character is worried about the boys’ ability to win, the voice-over talks about his fraught relationship with his own father, and how he must break that cycle of mistrust. The film really does not try to convey anything without words. It is said that narration is often a quick fix for holes in the narrative. Well, if your film is half narration and voice-overs, it says a lot about the narrative.
Abhay Deol is good but it isn’t anything he hasn’t done before. The actor appears very much in his comfort zone throughout the film. Debutant Emily Shah as the team’s physio does her part well but her character is introduced so late in the film, she hardly has time to establish herself. The boys, whom the film is about, are unidimensional. There are no distinguishing qualities, no back stories that tell us about their motivations, or personalities. It’s unfair to judge their acting abilities based on such badly-written roles.
I wish I could call Jungle Cry old wine in a new bottle. It is actually old wine in an older bottle that has been reused far too many times by now. Unlike wine, film narrative tropes do not get better with age. Jungle Cry begins streaming on Lionsgate Play from June 3. Watch it only if you have nothing else to watch. Although on a weekend this busy with releases, you should hardly be able to find time for it.
Film: Jungle Cry
Director: Sagar Ballary
Cast: Abhay Deol, Emily Shah, Steve Aldis, Atul Kumar, Rhys Ap William, Sherry Baines