Making a film on snooker is indeed a brave decision in India. Then to have at 15-year-old play the title role is bordering on crazy. But Toolsidas Junior does both and manages to walk away unscathed. The film was first talked about for first being Rajiv Kapoor’s comeback to the screen in over 30 years. And then, after his untimely death, it gained emotional significance for being his final performance. But minus this context too, Toolsidas touches a chord. It is a well-made clean film that blends the thrill of sport with the softness of human emotions. Also read: Toolsidas Junior trailer: Sanjay Dutt turns snooker coach in Rajiv Kapoor’s final film. Watch
Toolsidas Junior is the story of a teenager (Varun Buddhadev), who has seen his father Toolsidas (Rajiv Kapoor) try to win the Calcutta Club Snooker Championship and fail multiple times. His nemesis is the champion of champions, the seemingly-unbeatable Jimmy Tandon (Dalip Tahil). In the end, he decides to take matters and the cue stick in his own hands and sets out to win the trophy for his father. Aiding him in this goal is the now-reclusive former national champion Mohammed Salaam (Sanjay Dutt).
The hallmark of any good sports film is that it shouldn’t be too much about sports. One should be able to enjoy it even if you don’t follow the sport in question (see Lagaan, Queen’s Gambit, Chak De India, or Dangal for instance). And that is where Toolsidas Junior succeeds. Even if you don’t know your billiards from your snooker, you will be able to follow and enjoy the film. Because in the end, the story isn’t about the sport at all. It is about the bond between a father and his son; it is about a dedicated boy trying to make his father proud; and it is about the battered ex-pro looking for redemption in his protégé. These universal emotions drive the story forward. Sport, then, becomes incidental. The story doesn’t waste any time in introducing us to the intricacies and rules of the game, and I am thankful for that.
There is nothing in Toolsidas Junior that you haven’t seen before apart from the fact that it brings snooker to Bollywood. It is a simple story, told without any frills. But it manages to stay fresh by steering clear of stereotypes and tropes. The characters are well-rounded, the writing crisp, the dialogue natural, and the performances measured. It may be predictable but never gets boring. It reinforces that belief that even the simplest of tales, if told well, can be engaging.
The film also includes a healthy dose of 90s nostalgia, right from the subtle Campa Cola product placement to casting Dalip Tahil in a negative role. Even Sanjay Dutt in his Salaam Bhai act evokes his 90s big brother persona.
Subtlety is the film’s strength. There is hardly any melodrama, any bickering, screaming, or Machiavellian schemes from the bad guy. Drama exists but it remains understated and palatable. Toolsidas Junior even succeeds in delivering some life lessons through sports without having to get any character to deliver a big speech about it. The film even manages to touch a sensitive subject like alcoholism without sermonizing. The biggest lesson it delivers is that in life, it is not always about winning or losing, but just enjoying the game. A poignant message for the times we are in.
Rajiv Kapoor makes a credible comeback and it aches to think that we won’t see him on screen again. But then, it is the perfect swan song too, in a way. The actor reminds you of Shammi Kapoor and Rishi Kapoor when they transitioned to character roles. He may not quite match the acting skills or star power of his more illustrious family members but he makes up for that by delivering a grounded performance that never goes over the top. He brings out Toolsidas’ flaws and is still likable. Sanjay Dutt excels in his supporting role too. But in the end, the film rests on the tiny shoulders of young Varun Buddhadev, who plays the titular character. The teenager carries the film effortlessly. He may still be a bit rough around the edges but the boy can act. And his co-stars–Rajiv and Sanjay in particular–make sure that they support his performance and not outshine him.
Dalip Tahil as the menacing, snooty Jimmy Tandon is a delight to watch and reminds you why he was, at one point, among the favourite villains of several filmmakers.
In the epilogue, you realize that the film was based on a true story after all, that of the writer-director Mridul Mahendra himself (he is credited as Mridul Toolsidas in the end credits). And that only makes the story more relatable, more personal. Toolsidas Junior is a fun, heartwarming film that certainly deserves two hours of your time.
Toolsidas Junior had its world television premiere on Sony Max on May 21, and began streaming on Netflix from Monday, May 23, 2022.