Snooker’s the game, and an Indian lad takes it up to avenge his father’s honor in “Toolsidas Junior,” an engaging feel-good dramedy as seen from both ends of the pool cue.
Mridul Mahendra’s film may lack the whizz-bang showmanship of Martin Scorsese’s “The Color of Money.” But he shows us two Indias as he tells the “true story” of a child of privilege who watches his Dad waste his shots at glory — easily plied with drinks that ruin his chances every time the Calcutta Sports Club championships roll around — and hangs around in seedy pool halls to learn to snooker the snooker who snookered his old man.
That’s a confusing sentence, much like the film’s confusing relationship with the literal truth. A lengthy disclaimer opens the movie, and a refutation of that disclaimer ends it. All the director needed to do was say “Inspired by a true story” and leave it at that. But the fellow changed his name for the credits, so there’s more to it than that.
The late Rajeev Kapoor plays the portly father who dominates the snooker table at his club, except for that one time each year they hold a tourney and he somehow finds a way to lose to the regal, imperious Jimmy Tandan (Dalip Tahil) in the finals.
Varun Buddhadev plays Midi, adoring son of Mr. Toolsidas, a kid in his tweens who cheers his father on at the tourney until that one year he sees exactly how Tandan does it. The winner gets his father drunk between rounds.
Midi is too little to call out his father’s behavior, or even warn him (apparently) when he sees this sabotage coming from a mile off.
But Midi isn’t too little to figure out a way to rescue his much larger and older brother Goti (Chinmay Chandraunshuh), who, like his father, has his vice and an addiction of choice. Goti is a teenaged gambler. Midi sees through the “fix” at a carnival shooting gallery, and Goti decides that since the kid is sharp, a quick study and a crack shot, he should be the family’s champion sportsman.
Forget snooker. Midi should stick to the “big money” sports like tennis and cricket. Goti will be his manager. The only problem with that is Midi is too little to be any good at either of those sports.
He’s too small to play pool in the club, either. His “feet don’t reach the floor” and he’ll “tear the (baize/felt) table.” That’s why he and the hustler-in-the-making Goti search high and low for a place for him to pick up the game, and settle on a pool hall in the homeless, poor, porn cinema/street-hustler side of town.
Not that they tell their parents. Not that Goti sticks with it after the kid learns which streetcars to take and when to show up to get practice time. Goti’s on to his next bet.
The brother to brother scenes are light and slapshticky enough to come off. But “Toolsidas Junior” doesn’t hit the sweet spot until the kid finds a mentor.
The sullen, silent Salaam Bhia (Sanjay Dutt) naps in the downmarket Wellington club where he holds forth. Nap for an hour, practice for an hour, that’s his ritual. He used to be the national champ at snooker. Now he just broods, enforces “his” rules and chews.
“Muhammad Salaam Bhjai doesn’t spit his betel leaf for ANYone,” one of his down-and-out fans insists. The kid studies him, mimics his every move, and eventually becomes his protege.
“If you want to see clearly, befriend the darkness” of pool halls, the guru preaches. Take naps to rest your eyes and stay acclimated to the place.
The instruction scenes, something no Hollywood pool hustling movie ever gets into, are marvels of simplicity and common sense. Dutt’s towering presence sells the reality of these scenes, and the snooker playing on display isn’t bad either.
It’s a simple feel-good movie, with an “I’ll show them” shot of family redemption tossed in between the trick shots and run-the-table sequences. In most cultures, a filmmaker could’ve gotten through this story in 90-100 minutes easily.
Still, the adults are sharp and the kids are all right. It plays, even if the pacing’s slow by Western standards. And while you might not know the rules of snooker any better by the end than you did at the outset, there’s enough here to make one want to look them up.
Cast: Varun Buddhadev, Rajeev Kapoor, Sanjay Dutt, Tasveer Kamil, Chinmay Chandraunshuh and Dalip Tahil
Credits: Scripted and directed by Mridul Mahendra. A Netflix release.
Running time: 2:10