In the summer of 2011, on a day when India (national/anti-national no bar) queued up to watch their cherished dream – that of India winning a cricket World Cup – unfold on the biggest screen they could find, MS Dhoni pulled it off in a way that only he can.
Like so many that day, as the ball soared into the stands off Dhoni’s bat, I cried; the largeness of the screen amplified the effect of that championship-winning moment that has since stood still in time.
A friend who was with me that day, someone with only a passing interest in cricket, couldn’t fathom why I’d possibly cry about India's world cup win. At the very moment Dhoni hit that six.
Cut to 2016, and the very same friend ended up crying after a big screen recreation of that moment, in M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story, a film that chronicles the life of Mahendra Singh Dhoni. Surely, this is the sort of thing that cannot be dismissed as being merely incidental?
Here’s the thing about Neeraj Pandey’s biopic (Or hagiography? Can’t quite tell what term is in fashion these days) – when you walk away from it, you know exactly as much about Dhoni the person as you knew when you walked in.
The film shows you important (and sometimes exaggerated, I suspect) moments from his life, but Dhoni the character responds to them exactly how we’ve seen Dhoni the cricketer and media personality respond to them – with characteristic composure, accompanied often by dry wit.
Intriguingly enough, not getting to know Dhoni better turns out to be one of the film’s biggest strengths, because it furthers the legend of MSD.
Because here’s the thing about Mahendra Singh Dhoni – the tag of ‘legend’ suits the man pretty darn well. We tag too many people as legends too soon, and often undeservingly, but this guy is legit. Bonafide. Call it what you want. You might even rethink Sachin Tendulkar’s ‘legend’ status in a fleeting moment of weakness, considering how soon we found another ‘God’ in Virat Kohli. But Dhoni? He’s a legend for real.
And not knowing more about him means that the film ends up reinforcing the myth around the legend, for Dhoni is clearly a man who fought hard for years, readied himself for the battle with destiny, seized luck when it came his way, and made every ounce of that luck count.
And, of course, Dhoni always got his way. Correction: Dhoni always gets his way.
Despite frequently annoying detours and mildly intrusive glamorisation, particularly with regards to his love life, M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story is an entertaining, inspiring film. (And let’s not call it ‘Bollywoodisation’ or suchlike in a condescending tone, please. India made Bollywood, not the other way round. Let’s be nice to ourselves, once in a while.)
Everything about the film — some of it nuanced, a lot of it in-your-face — is about maintaining the aura that Dhoni himself has built over the years. In many ways, the fact that a biopic of him was made while he’s still active, and still one of the most recognisable Indian faces, is itself another big step in beefing up that aura.
It’s really no surprise that the film is produced by one of those closest to Dhoni, Arun Pandey of Rhiti Sports. It is, in essence, a home production for MS. His victories, his successes, the joys he has brought all of us amid the humdrum of life are still fresh, so why not splash them onto the grandest screen of them all?
You will have your problems with the film, you will wonder why the man is treated with such deification, and you will have to sit through many scenes that make you restless, as you urge the film to move on to the ones that make you want to let yourself loose and cheer.
But through it all, the film holds you because of two reasons. The first, most important one is what can only be called the spirit of Dhoni. The film comes across not as a recreation of Dhoni’s life, (for that was clearly never the intention). It was never designed to tell you about how Dhoni is, but to show you the little unknown moments that went into making him the brand he is. (Like the way people saw potential in him as a brand way back at the school level, or the fact that he wasn’t the inventor of his signature ‘helicopter shot’.)
The other reason the film works is because of the way the spirit of Dhoni manifests itself into the actor playing him. Sushant Singh Rajput appears to wear Dhoni’s aura on his sleeve, in a manner that you fall for MSD all over again. It doesn’t take you too long to accept him as Dhoni – it happens organically in the very first scene, because Rajput has submitted himself completely to the part.
The manner in which Rajput’s Dhoni emotes or reacts to news, good or bad; the manner in which he quietly asserts what needs to be done and makes it seem instantly non-negotiable; or even the way in which he gently shows respect to everyone he meets, while still making clear where the balance of power tilts; Sushant knocks it out of the park in more ways than one. (It seems like no one could have done it better except Dhoni himself; but then, he’s already done that once).
In the dying moments of the film, shortly after witnessing the journey leading to that magic moment when Sushant Singh Rajput (literally) knocks the ball out of the park, we finally see MS Dhoni’s face for the first time.
That shot of him draws the largest applause of all; and therein lies the film’s greatest victory. Despite all its shortcomings and its lack of depth into Mahendra Singh Dhoni the person, the Neeraj Pandey quasi-biopic entertains, while ensuring that Dhoni’s legend breaches yet another milestone.