After Dangal and Sultan, wrestling heads the sports-biopic bandwagon in Hindi cinema

Gautam Chintamani

Dec 31, 2016 14:54:32 IST

Saala Khadoos. Freaky Ali. Sultan. Azhar. M.S. Dhoni- The Untold Story. Dangal. From garnering all-around critical acclaim to box office records and everything in between, the sports film genre has had a wonderful year.

After Dangal and Sultan, wrestling heads the sports-biopic bandwagon in Hindi cinema

Beyond the unparalleled success of some like Sultan and the failure of a few such as Freaky Ali or Azhar, one of the biggest film achievements of 2016 would undoubtedly have to be the initiation of the sports films into mainstream narrative of popular Hindi films. As a subject, sports has only become more popular in the last five years but Hindi films do not have a tradition of sports-and-life-as-one kind of subjects similar to Hollywood’s long-standing custom of boxing films. With Sultan and Dangal, two films that released in the same year and had many thematic similarities and yet managed to not only rake in the big bucks but also impress the viewers and critics alike, Hindi cinema might have just laid the foundation of a new kind of legacy.

Just till a few years ago, sports films were considered to be a no-go as far as popular Hindi films went. The joint popularity of films and cricket, especially in the wake of India beating world champions West Indies to win the 1983 cricket World Cup, was thought of as the perfect meeting point but the result was an abject failure. Mohan Kumar got the heartthrob of the day Kumar Gaurav to play the titular All Rounder (1984) but the film of an underdog fighting the corrupt system and economic disparity to become a great all-rounder had no takers.

The same year also witnessed the release of Hip, Hip, Hurray (1984) a film that continues to remain one of the best to merge sports perfectly into the realm of popular Hindi films. The limited success of Hip, Hip, Hurray where an engineer (Raj Kiran) temporarily becomes the sports coach in a high school while awaiting a cushy job to come through, and helps a troubled teenager Raghu (Nikhil Bhagat) to decipher the road ahead, somewhere sealed the fate of the kind of sports film that Hindi cinema deserved. Intriguingly enough, 1984 also saw the release of the Rocky (1974) inspired Boxer featuring Mithun Chakraborty but even though the film enjoyed some success, it could not evoke the same passion, either for the underdog or the element of sport, namely boxing, as Rocky did.

The 1990s saw Dev Anand’s Awwal Number (1990) and Sau Crore (1991) in quick succession where the narrative was fueled by real life incidents connected with sports and both were washouts. Awwal Number was about a Sachin Tendulkar-like character called Sunny (Aamir Khan) who fights all odds to don the Indian cap and even had a disgruntled big cricketer Ronny (Aditya Pancholi) who is dropped from the team joining hands with an LTTEesque terrorist group out to bomb the stadium during a match and the real-life murder of badminton star Syed Modi inspired Sau Crore. Even the presence of the sports star themselves in a film like Ashwini (1991) where the athlete Ashwini Nachappa played herself could not garner enough strength to inspire more. The 1990s also saw Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar (1992) fail at the box office and perhaps it was this action that swore mainstream stars off sports for nearly a decade. Even the success of Lagaan (2001) that was the kind of alchemy of sports and drama that Bollywood would love was considered to be a one-off until, of course, Chak De! India (2007) came along.

The manner in which Chak De! India merged the so-called sports element of the script with the standard elements of storytelling in popular Hindi films achieved two goals – one it showed that sports could be as emotional, dramatic and entertaining as some of the other genres and also that any film could be centered around sports and not come across like a documentary. Even with the presence of marquee names such as Shah Rukh Khan and producers Yash Chopra and Aditya Chopra, Chak De! India up until its release was considered to be a risky proposition. While it was not a biopic in the truest sense in spite of being inspired by the life of Mir Ranjan Negi, the hockey goalkeeper who was at the receiving end of India’s 7-1 defeat against Pakistan at the 1982 Asian Games final, Chak De! India also got Bollywood to look beyond cricket for sports subjects. In that aspect, Priyanka Chopra’s Mary Kom (2014) is almost like a torchbearer for both the biopic as well as the sports film. Besides chronicling the life of a living sports legend it also took cinematic liberties, some to the chagrin of purists like getting Priyanka Chopra to play the Manipur Mary Kom but succeeded in doing great justice to the reel and real story.

It’s been two years since Mary Kom released and even though the sports-bio has not taken off in the fashion that one would have imagined – where is the Dhanyanchand film or the P.T. Usha biopic – but the seeds it had sowed have in a way begun to bear fruits. In the years to come, 2016 could be viewed as a watershed year for the genre. This year, there were two cricket biopics - Azhar and MS Dhoni - The Untold Story along with a story based around golf, Freaky Ali, and one on boxing Saala Khadoos and, of course, the wrestling films Sultan and Dangal. What separates the ‘wrestling films’ from the rest is the manner in which they have captured the imagination.

Like the great boxing films of Hollywood, both Sultan and Dangal transcend the limitations of the genre and become something more than sports films. As in the boxing films, these were also about the underdogs and not just a typical underdog but one who had to also fight barriers such as sex and economics. They were also not limited to just one character – Sultan had three in the form of Sultan (Salman Khan), Aarfa (Anushka Sharma) and Fateh Singh (Randeep Hooda) while Dangal had Mahavir (Aamir Khan), Geeta (Fatima Sana Shaikh) and Babita (Sanya Malhotra) – and not only do they deliver the knockout punch but also redeem us.

Like Mary Kom, the sports films this year also took creative liberties and even though some of them went to the extent of ‘rewriting’ the past such as Azhar where the dark reality of match fixing was addressed in a very different manner, the audience was smart enough to accept or reject it. It did not mind that MS Dhoni - The Untold Story chose not to show the cricketer’s real life elder brother as a part of the narrative or that Dangal showed Mahavir Phogat to be locked in a room during his daughter's final bout, even though in reality he was in the stands, just to increase the tension as it made the narrative more compelling. But at the same time, the audience chose to reject Azhar.

The visible difference between the sports films of 2016 and those of the previous years is the oblique manner in which sports seem to permeate into the standard (read accepted) narrative as opposed to trying to reverse engineer the narrative to include sports in it. Dangal and Sultan are more like On the Waterfront where sports is a silent partner in life as opposed to becoming the mainstay even though the characters are unmistakably defined by sports.

With talks of John Abraham interested in playing ‘The Great Gama’, the stage name of Ghulam Muhammad Butt or Gama Pehalwan, in a biopic based on the legendary wrestler, a new biography of the late Dara Singh, Deedara, out there which could be a film in the offing as well, and the story of Olympian Sakshi Malik waiting to be filmed, wrestling might just become for Hindi films what boxing is for Hollywood.

Updated Date: Dec 31, 2016 14:54:32 IST

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