An overly-long first half keeps Toolsidas Junior from reaching its full potential, but a strong second half rewards those willing to stick with this underdog story.
Writer-director Mridul Mahendra (listed in the credits as Mridul Toolsidass) based his film on a true story: his own. Perhaps that’s why it feels like there’s a lot of extraneous material in Toolsidas Junior — stuff personally important to the filmmaker that he wanted to include, even though it slows the pace of the film.
The movie opens with a snooker tournament at the Calcutta Sports Club in 1994. Toolsidas (Rajiv Kapoor, in his final film) is a bit of a showboat, doing tricks to impress his adoring 13-year-old son Midi (Varun Buddhadev). Toolsidas earns his spot in the next day’s finals, set to face the reigning champ: the villainous Jimmy Tandon (Dalip Tahil).
Toolsidas celebrates at the club bar with what he promises is just one drink. Hours later, Midi’s furious mom (Tasveer Kamil) sends him to collect his drunken dad. This is something Midi has clearly done numerous times. At the tournament finals, Jimmy uses a break in the action to trick Toolsidas into getting drunk, allowing the villain to come from behind and win for a sixth consecutive time.
Sensing turmoil in the family, Midi’s older brother Goti (Chinmai Chandranshuh) becomes convinced that the boys have to start earning money. A fan of get-rich-quick schemes, Goti wants to use Midi’s diligence and athletic aptitude to make a ton of money. Goti’s assumption that Midi will be naturally gifted at whatever sport he tries is ridiculous, but the film treats it seriously, devoting way too much time to Midi failing repeatedly and Goti getting mad at him. What should have been a brief montage drags on interminably.
The pace plods along even after Midi convinces Goti that there’s money to be made gambling on snooker. Plus, learning to play will give Midi the chance to avenge his dad’s loss and defeat Jimmy. Midi’s too young to play at the Sports Club, so he finds a pool hall in a seedy part of town where he meets his mentor: crusty, enigmatic former national champion Salaam Bhai (Sanjay Dutt). The process is so protracted that Midi’s training doesn’t begin until an hour into the film.
One can’t blame viewers for bailing out before this point, but this is when Toolsidas Junior gets good. Salaam Bhai has clever ways of explaining techniques to Midi, like equating various methods for striking the ball to the punching styles of Amitabh Bachchan, Rajinikanth, and Mithun Chakraborthy.
Salaam Bhai also uses the opportunity to teach Midi a lesson about economic class. Midi’s family has membership at an exclusive country club. Salaam Bhai is poor and always has been. When Midi takes a win on a technicality and passes up a chance to play, Salaam Bhai lights into Midi. A privileged kid like him can’t understand what it’s like to skip eating just to save enough money to play. Midi leaves food on his plate because he’s never has to worry where his next meal will come from. Ever the good student, Midi takes Salaam Bhai’s lesson to heart. There’s plenty of cruft in Toolsidas Junior, but Mridul Mahendra deserves credit for including this subplot in his story.
Varun Buddhadev is Bollywood’s go-to child actor of the moment for good reason. His performance in Toolsidas Junior is really solid, and it’s obvious how much effort he put into learning snooker for the film. The movie is at its best when Buddhadev and Sanjay Dutt interact with one another. They make a winning team.