National Sports Day: Why has Bollywood overlooked a much-needed Major Dhyan Chand biopic?
As India celebrates the birth anniversary of the late hockey great Major Dhyan Chand, the question of a missing big screen adaptation of one of the greatest sports persons the world has ever seen comes forth. The legendary centre-forward is universally considered to be one of the greatest ever hockey players and despite a life that is made up of the kind of stuff that inspires great cinema, a biopic remains elusive.
For someone who was the ‘other’ sportsman besides sprinter Jesse Owens to puncture Adolf Hitler’s Aryan supremacy theory during the 1936 Berlin Olympics, (India defeated Germany 8-1 in the final), Dhyan Chand has rarely been celebrated in popular culture the way he deserves.
It was after the very first match of the 1936 Olympics where Dhyan Chand’s magical stick work led to posters appearing all over Berlin to come see the Indian magician Dhyan Chand in action at the Olympic complex. In fact, tales of Dhyan Chand’s wizardry saw foreign officials break his stick to see if there was some magnet inside them, or asking him to play with a walking stick where, much to their chagrin, he scored the most goals in the match, and even Hitler offered to make him a Colonel in his Army if he moved to Germany. Despite such folklore attached to the man in his own lifetime, it’s a mystery why the story of Dhyan Chand still finds it difficult to attract filmmakers.
Perhaps some years ago, such a film would have been considered a risky proposition considering its scale that would have needed to include at least one Olympic game, 1936 Berlin, Hitler, the freedom struggle and this would have increased the budget. But more than a big budget, it was also the myth surrounding sports films in India where up until Lagaan (2002), the genre was usually considered a no-go in terms of box office success that must have dented the chances of an adaptation.
Intriguingly enough, even after Lagaan (2001) or Chak De! India (2007), there were hardly any takers for Dhyan Chand. In the past few years, the combination of the biopic and sports has resulted in some immensely popular as well as successful films — Mary Kom (2014), Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (2013) — and two recent cricket-based films — the Sachin Tendulkar documentary, Sachin: A Billion Dreams (2017), and the MS Dhoni biopic, MS Dhoni: The Untold Story (2016), where the subjects were fresh in the minds of the audiences. In the latter’s case, he is still playing, have also opened up new possibilities for the genre of sports biopics where the sports persons are still active.
In this context, Dangal (2016), that chronicled the life of wrestlers Geeta Phogat and Babita Phogat, took the sport film narrative within Hindi films to new heights and therefore now, the bigger question possibly plaguing the minds of filmmakers is whether a film on a hockey player, who played his last international match in 1948, still be an intriguing proposition?
Unlike a docudrama on Sachin Tendulkar, who curiously, and controversially, enough pipped Dhyan Chand to become the first Indian sportsperson to be conferred with the Bharat Ratna, or even MS Dhoni: The Untold Story, there is more to Dhyan Chand than just the hockey. Being an Army man, Dhyan Chand incidentally got his name because he used to practice non-stop even in the nights under the moon (chand in Hindi), where he served with the British to being the fulcrum of a team that not only took on the Europeans but often beat them.
Winning the Olympic gold that would go on to inspire millions, Dhyan Chand is the kind of ‘real’ heroic tale that every major Bollywood star seeks but for some reason, refuses to pick up. Ironically enough, with Reema Kagti bringing to screen the story of independent India’s first Olympic hockey gold, with Akshay Kumar portraying Balbir Singh Senior, who coincidentally was labeled ‘a modern day Dhyan Chand’ in Gold, there might be some renewed interest in bringing to life a biopic on Dhyan Chand, the sportsman whose birthday, 29 August is also celebrated as National Sports Day in India.