A college professor I met last week had an interesting take on the proliferation of sports biopics in India. “When real life achievers find equal acceptance with fictional superheroes, it shows a rise in maturity at societal level.’’
Jargon decoded, what this perhaps means is that the sports genre starts to become relevant when a society (or country or people) is not driven only to escapism, but finds relief, joy, solace, regret, pride in the achievements and failures of its own sportspersons.
For most of the 70 years since Independence, sport has been a neglected aspect of national life. It’s been seen as timepass at best, though ‘waste of time’ was actually the general refrain! The sense of pride and understanding of life that sports brings — not necessarily only through victory — was obscured.
Thankfully, that is changing. In the last six years, there have been six biopics on Indian sportspersons: Paan Singh Tomar, Milkha Singh, M C Mary Kom, Mohammed Azharuddin, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, and the Phogat sisters (Dangal). In the preceding 64 years after Independence, there was none!
Next week sees the release of One Billion Dreams (on Sachin Tendulkar, which I understand is more of a documentary than a biopic). Meanwhile, movies on several other sportspersons/issues are in different stages of ideation or scripting across Bollywood’s creative houses.
This growth in interest has not been overnight, of course. For instance, sports stories would hardly find mention on front pages of newspapers even three decades ago: nowadays, these are much sought after by editors.
From a cinematic point of view, sport is a source of highly credible content, with all the vicissitudes and human drama that can enrich films. While there are complaints that Indian sports films are mainly about current or recently retired players, and largely reverential, these are half-truths at best.
The films on Milkha Singh and Paan Singh Tomar for instance, date back half a century or more. And the biopic on Paan Singh was not a hagiography, rather a scathing comment on the unjust sports and social systems that made a champion runner into a dreaded dacoit.
Modern sportspersons find favour as subjects because they are more ‘top-of-mind’ with audiences. If you’ve been to any IPL match in Mumbai, the tumultuous reception that Tendulkar got when he was spotted on the giant screen showed the grip he still has on the psyche of fans.
That’s crucial from a filmmaker’s point of view: as subject, as well as making a financially viable proposition for those in the film-making ecosystem. But as viewers warm up to sports biopics even further – which is a process of evolution – subjects and their treatment will get more varied.
In my opinion, India sport is rich with subjects for movies: Dhyan Chand, P T Usha, Mansur Ali Khan, Abhinav Bindra to name a few amazing sportspersons; the cricket match-fixing scam that broke in circa 2000 if told fearlessly, or India’s golden run in Olympics hockey as a documentary.
Most fascinating, however, is a story told to me by the late opening batsman Syed Mushtaq Ali during one of the long walks we had along Marine Drive when he came to Bombay for an event. It is from India’s tumultuous cricket tour of England in 1936.
The drama transpired before India was to begin its second innings of the second Test at Old Trafford. Mushtaq was to open the innings with Vijay Merchant. “Vizzy (Maharajah of Vizianagram who was manager) called me aside and told me to run out Merchant,’’ related Mushtaq Ali.
“When I asked him why, Vizzy said that if I don’t, the bania Merchant would run me out,’’ he recalled. This had him worried, and he confided in his partner. Merchant was taken aback. “Vijaybhai then revealed that Vizzy had in fact told him I would run him out since I was a mussalman!’’
Vizzy’s diabolical plan to play the communal card and divide the opening pair was now in the open. To counter him, Merchant and Mushtaq decided that whatever else happened, neither should get run out. As it happened, they put on 203 runs for the first wicket. India lost the Test, but Vizzy’s nefarious plan was foiled.
There is a tremendous story for a film there: With a lesson that goes beyond just sports and has as much relevance today as it did more than 80 years back.