Some of the best literature in cricket can be found in biographies and autobiographies of its most legendary players. Yet, cricket has somehow failed to lend itself successfully to cinema, when compared to other major sports like football and boxing in capturing the drama and intrigue that sport usually brings.
In Bollywood, there have been a few exceptions where cricket stole the show, most notably Lagaan (2001), or was tangential, yet important to the story. The cricket biopic, though, is still a new concept in India with those of Mohammad Azharuddin and MS Dhoni releasing this year, along with a forthcoming documentary on Sachin Tendulkar.
Both Azharuddin and Dhoni have had cinematic life stories and careers, both worthy of biopics. One a hero-turned-pariah and the other a “nobody” from a cricketing backwater with no connections rising to the top and lifting the World Cup for India.
The jury’s out on Azhar, and while “MS Dhoni: The Untold Story” scores in its production quality, casting and authenticity, there are several blank spaces that the film failed to fill. And that’s partly because of the subject himself.
Among Indian cricket’s biggest superstars to emerge since the 2000s, Dhoni remains the most phlegmatic of the lot. His calm exterior, which he maintains irrespective of victory or defeat, and his ability to absorb enormous pressure are as compelling as the story of his rise.
It’s ironic though that the man he handed the Test captaincy to, Virat Kohli (also a contender to captainship in all formats) is at the opposite end of the spectrum when it comes to showing emotions on the field. But Dhoni’s matter-of-fact disposition still makes him a fascinating character worth exploring.
So, would a biopic authorized by him tell us all we needed to know about him?
Not entirely, because the film seems to have positioned itself as a feel-good story. It spans exactly 30 years, culminating in the 2011 World Cup win. The period when Dhoni’s captaincy came a full circle within months of that victory, and the IPL mess that followed involving Chennai Super Kings, don’t find a place. Why let controversies and negativity come in the way of a “happy” story? seems to have been thought behind the script.
Within this time frame, the film does well to showcase his early life in Ranchi, to audiences who may not necessarily be fans of the game. A lengthy first half packs in all significant details of his rise – his school cricket heroics; switch from goalkeeping to wicket keeping thanks to a pushy coach who wouldn’t take no for an answer; an affectionate sports shop owner (Paramjit Singh) who literally went out of his way to secure an equipment contract; employers who didn’t always grant him the best of facilities but still put an arm around his shoulder when he was feeling low; his disenchantment with his job as a ticket collector in the chaos of the Kharagpur railway station.
That disenchantment formed one of the more powerful scenes in the movie – when Dhoni tells his dad he quit the Railways. The prospect of giving up a secure government job to play cricket was non-negotiable for Paan Singh Dhoni, but he relents on realizing that his son is determined to play full time.
To understand Paan Singh’s anxiety, you have to consider his own story. In the 1960s, he left Almora (now in Uttarakhand) and arrived in Ranchi as a laborer. He became a pump operator, but his dreams for his son were bigger. Dhoni, being a child growing up post economic liberalization, realized that there were risks to be taken and opportunities to be grabbed instead of being caged in a job he didn’t want.
Emotional scenes involving Dhoni were few, given his personality. But Sushant Singh Rajput has done a fine job in portraying a man who largely kept his emotions in check, but like all men, prone to subtle outbursts. This was a departure from Rajput’s aggressive avatar as Ishaan in the movie “Kai Po Che” in which he plays a passionate coach and mentor to a freakishly talented young batsman. By copying Dhoni’s swagger, walk to the crease, the helicopter shot, and his general demeanor, it’s clear that Rajput has done his homework well.
The slow and measured build up in the first half gives way to a jumpy and rushed second half, ironically, like a typical Dhoni innings in a limited-overs match. Before you know it, he’s captaining India.
His relationship with the other senior players is either ignored or glossed over. The romantic episodes are given far too much time – including a few song sequences that needlessly Bollywoodise the movie. The story of how he took charge of a young team that didn’t even take T20 cricket seriously, and yet went on to win the 2007 World T20, wasn’t deemed important enough.
The efforts and money spent in acquiring original footage and superimposing Rajput’s face on Dhoni’s during the match sequences was one of the redeeming features in an otherwise disappointing second half.
But even 190 minutes, long enough by Indian movie standards, didn’t seem enough, if you consider all that was left out. His complicated relationship with the media, friendly yet cryptic, missing platitudes with wit, got no play.
But we’ve seen enough of Dhoni in press conferences to expect the odd gem as he rambles on about “right areas” and “processes”. But that’s not “untold”. Beneath that suave exterior – long streaks, biker and all – is an intensely private man who reveals very little. Maybe the film was his way – late in his career –to break out of that shell, only just. Until he fills those blanks himself, MS Dhoni will remain an enigma.