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Dangal, Sultan and Dhoni: Why films on sports are such a big hit in India

India’s frequent sporting misses are what feed our collective hunger for celluloid celebrations of real and imagined victories.

bollywood Updated: Jan 09, 2017 17:51 IST
Sanchita Sharma
Sanchita Sharma
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Sports films,Biopics,Dangal
Aamir Khan’s latest sports film Dangal is creating history at the box office.

Aamir Khan starrer Dangal crossed the Rs 350-crore mark on Sunday to become the biggest Bollywood blockbuster ever. Based on the life of wrestler Mahavir Singh Phogat who coached his two daughters to win two Commonwealth golds and a silver, the film struck a chord with millions of Indians for whom opportunities to root for a winning side are few and far between.

Why do films about sporting wins -- Lagaan, Chak de India, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, Mary Kom, to name a few -- break the box-office in a country where no sport other than cricket sporadically offers fans the dizzying euphoria of wins and the gut-wrenching despondency of defeats?

Psychiatrists seem to have an answer.

India’s frequent sporting misses are what feed our collective hunger for celluloid celebrations of real and imagined victories. With so few opportunities to cheer a winning team, we turn to celluloid to recreate and glamourise past victories. Films that echo sporting wins give dejected supporters some reason to cheer for Team India despite its chronically medal-starved status.

Dream win

Revisiting victories raises the viewers’ collective self-esteem by helping us ignore our many defeats for a moment and celebrate a worthy win. It also makes our supporting a losing side feel less like a complete waste of time.

With extensive marketing and 24x7 media coverage of all major sporting events beamed to our phones in realtime, it becomes impossible to ignore our numerous sporting misses. Viewers watching the live telecast of the Olympics, for example, cannot ignore that the medal tally for India, home to one-sixth of the world’s people, trails behind nations with a population of a few millions.

“Hurt becomes exaggerated and amplified, leading to anger and despondency,” said Dr Samir Parikh, chairman, department of mental health and behavioural sciences, Fortis Group of hospitals. “Watching a film on victory -- whether revisiting a past win or a fictional one – is cathartic and releases the viewers’ pent-up frustrations.”

We are one

Sporting events reinforce national and social identity and provide spectators with a sense of belonging, identification and inclusion, which we rarely experience because of recurring losses in the field. Sports give spectators a collective identity and unifies them across class, caste, politics, gender, and other social divides. People may be voting for different parties and belong to different socio-economic strata, but when Team India wins, it’s a collective win for everyone.

The stadium then becomes a battleground where nation’s pride -- along with it social, cultural and ethnic identity -- is at stake. “The Romans understood it well and used the arena as a unifier. Sport has evolved from gladiators fighting to the death in the arena to teams going to war without bloodshed in the field,” says Dr Nimesh Desai, director, Institute of Human Behaviour and Allied Sciences.


Nationalism apart, what clicks is the celebration of victory against all odds. Everyone wants an underdog to win and everyone, no matter how successful, believes themselves to be an underdog. “Everyone knows someone who they feel has had it easier and better than them and relate to an underdog,” said Dr Parikh.

Cheering for a winner is a no-brainer, but when you back someone who is seemingly destined to lose, the win becomes far more gratifying. “Unexpected wins mean more because they were not meant to happen. If you cheer a losing side that finally wins, their win becomes your win and the euphoria is compounded by the feeling that you supported the right team,” says Dr Desai.

First Published: Jan 09, 2017 16:01 IST