When half the world and their aunts are convinced that everything life has to offer can be expected on a playground then why is that commercial Hindi cinema still cringes at the thought of a sports film? Popular Hindi cinema can't ever hide its love for good drama and that being the case the success of Lagaan (2001), Iqbal (2005), Chak De India (2007), few of the most effective dramas in in the last decade, which had sports as a common thread should be reason enough to make more films based on sports.
The dichotomy that binds sports and Hindi cinema is beyond any logical explanation. The whole nation comes to a standstill to see eleven men play cricket, a hockey match arouses the patriot in everyone unlike anything and yet this passion isn't strong enough to inspire filmmakers. The fact that some of the best loved sporting stories of this nation are the imagined ones like Lagaan and Iqbal speaks volumes about the power of the zeal that sports evokes in people. It's almost impossible to think of the first Hindi film that was dedicated to films but in the 1980s there were a few like All Rounder (1984) and Awaal Number (1990) that tried to ride cricket's popularity wave. All Rounder, like the title, centered on a character that was good at just about everything he did and Awaal Number…well, was about someone who was first amongst the equals. All Rounder meandered from being a cricket tale to a love story to a family vendetta and much more whereas Awaal Number had a LTTE like terrorist angle to it in the middle of being the biopic of a sportsman.
There were two films in the middle of the 1980s that might have had sports as a very important peg of the story and yet weren't 'sports films' in any sense. A football coach who incurs the wrath of the most popular kid in school couldn't be anything but a sports film yet Prakash Jha's Hip, Hip, Hurray (1984) doesn't get confined to the trappings of the genre. The film very deftly used the concept of sports as a metaphor for life, something that anyone who has every played a sport knows and showed that a film with sports could be much more. Sunil Sharma or Saaheb dreams of being India's best goalkeeper but like his father everyone agrees that as there's only one goalkeeper in a team Saaheb might not be talented or even lucky enough to make the cut. Directed by Anil Ganguly Saaheb (1985) dealt with the trials of Saaheb's lower middle-class family in Calcutta and everything that would constitute a family drama but kept the passion that separated a sportsperson from everyone at the forefront. Much like the position he exceled at, like a goalkeeper Saaheb steers his family out of its darkest hour by selling one of his kidneys.
Laden with copious amounts of escapism, the manufactured realism of commercial Hindi cinema isn't ready to accept sportsmen and women as regular people. These characters aren't real enough in the scheme of their imagination. For a country that ruled field hockey for the longest time no filmmaker was inspired enough to make a film on the life of Major Dhyanchand, the story of Milkha Singh that may have inspired thousands to take up sports has now inspired a filmmaker; could it that these men and women would look odd if they broke into song and dance routine, they aren't 'real' enough for Bollywood? One of the big reasons behind this stepbrother like treatment dealt out to films with sports as a theme could be the box-office failure of Mansoor Khan's Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander (1992). This coming of age quasi remake of Breaking Away (1979) now enjoys a cult following but its commercial failure popularized the myth that sports films don't do well in India.
It tool almost a decade till Lagaan, Iqbal and Chak De India that created a hole in the wall allowing filmmakers to see the stranger-than-fiction lives of sportspersons as fodder. But what makes this a very interesting time for sports based film is the runaway success of Paan Singh Tomar (2012). While Paan Singh Tomar's tale is much more than sports it very effectively uses its symbolism as a parallel track. More importantly Paan Singh Tomar somewhere breaks the strong strange illogic that commercial Hindi cinema operates on- it craves realism enough to inspire a story but kills any semblance of reality once it starts telling the tale. Don't leave the arena yet; who knows the second-half might get better.