Jungle Cry — based on the true story of India’s surprise performance at the 2007 Under-14 Rugby World Cup — struggles to find its style, blunting the emotional impact of this underdog story. But if you’ve ever wanted to learn the rules of rugby, Jungle Cry is a great tutorial.
After an unnecessary voice-over giving background on the true story, the movie opens with a well-shot chase sequence (cinematographer Parixit Warrier is Jungle Cry‘s true hero). Four schoolboys run from some older men with a jar of stolen marbles, displaying incredible athleticism in their flight. A white man named Paul (Stewart Wright) witnesses their skills, convincing him he’s in the right place to find untapped rugby talent.
Any long-time watcher of Hindi-language films reflexively cringes as soon as a white person appears onscreen, knowing that these movies sometime are forced to hire non-actors (or at least actors who sound uncomfortable speaking native-level English) for these roles. But fear not. Jungle Cry is a British-Indian co-production, so all of the white actors are actually good. The film even employed Diane Charles as dialogue writer for the United Kingdom portions of the movie.
Paul’s mission is to train a team of Indian boys to play rugby for a tournament in the UK in just four month’s time. The head of the Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences in Odisha, Dr. Samanta (Atul Kumar), relishes the opportunity to give a dozen of his students — all kids from impoverished villages — a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see the world.
The Institute’s athletic director Rudra (Abhay Deol) disagrees. He recruited most of the boys to play soccer and thinks they won’t be able to learn a new sport. Rudra decides he’d rather quit than partake in this ultimately harmless experiment, even if it means leaving the students who’ve come to rely on him.
Even if this objection is grounded in reality, it’s a strange hill for Rudra to die on in a movie. It’s also weird that Dr. Samanta doesn’t immediately assign Rudra to be Paul’s much-needed translator, giving Rudra the chance to see the boys’ progress firsthand. The subplot feels like an attempt to force tension into the story, but it doesn’t achieve its goal.
This sequence relies a lot on awkward, documentary-style interviews with the adult characters. These interviews are interspersed throughout the plot, subdividing narrative sections and keeping the story from flowing naturally. This continues as the boys succeed in qualifying for the tournament and fly to England (with Rudra after Paul gets dengue), where they meet their team physical therapist, Roshni (Emily Shah). Shah struggles the most in the interview format, though she’s more comfortable in her scenes with Deol (who gives a solid performance).
Jungle Cry doesn’t differentiate the boys or give their characters distinct personalities (unlike another underdog Hindi sports film, Chak De India, where the members of the hockey team are just as important as their coach). It’s also unclear how old the boys are supposed to be. In reality, the team was made up of kids under the age of 14, and the tournament in the film is repeatedly referred to as a “junior tournament.” Yet the athletes from all the teams–Indian and otherwise–look a lot older than middle schoolers.
Where Jungle Cry excels is in explaining the rules of rugby and showing how the game is played. The explanation part is handled as Paul introduces the game to the boys. During the tournament, Warrier’s camera is always positioned to show what is important about the action taking place. That could mean positioning the camera at field-level to see what happens to the ball during a scrum or pulling back just far enough to watch the logical sequence of passes as the ball progresses downfield. It’s instructive but also exciting as it shows the narrative of what’s happening on the field. Again, kudos to cinematographer Parixit Warrier.