Captain movie review: Jayasurya's invested performance is the saving grace of this plodding sports biopic

In Captain, the insufferable use of music – mournful and theatrically celebratory by turns – might have become intolerable if it were not for Jayasurya’s presence.

Anna MM Vetticad February 17, 2018 15:05:05 IST


A former captain of the Indian football team who allegedly committed suicide by throwing himself before a moving train in 2006 – this is the sort of real-life saga crying out to be made into a film. In this country though, where we obsess over cricket at the expense of other sports, and where contemporary history remains a risky proposition for scriptwriters due to a national penchant for turning violent over 'hurt sentiments', VP Sathyan has remained in the shadows after his death.

This week’s new Mollywood release starring Jayasurya as the late football hero, takes us through his childhood in Kerala’s Kannur region to his rise on the sporting firmament, his descent into depression and tragic death. You would think that this poignant subject combined with Jayasurya’s natural affinity for the camera would guarantee a quality film. Charismatic stars, concepts and themes have limited value though, unless backed by strong writing and direction.

Captain movie review Jayasuryas invested performance is the saving grace of this plodding sports biopic

Jayasurya in a still from Captain. YouTube

After opening with a winning shot from a tournament that was one of Sathyan’s career highlights (I am not quibbling over dates and locations here), the film switches to the title plate. Its full name is Captain: Story of an Unsung Hero. It then transitions to a shot of a grieving woman telling a large gathering of journalists around her: They killed my Sathyan.

The woman is Sathyan’s widow Anitha (played by Anu Sithara). One assumes she is alleging that the system murdered her husband as surely as if it had actually physically pushed him on to that railway track, and that the “how?” raised by her pronouncement would be answered in ensuing scenes. That introduction, as it happens, mirrors the tone of the rest of Captain: highly melodramatised, but insubstantial. Because nearly two and a half hours later, when Captain returns to the same scene and dialogue, it turns out that in that time we have still not seen or heard enough to support Anitha’s claim.

Sure, there is a segment in between where Sathyan is shown being victimised by an officer of the Kerala Police who resents the government practice of giving sportspersons jobs without putting them through the grind required for regular folk to qualify for such posts. Sure, in one scene, Sathyan is humiliated in the dressing room. However, these are only a small part of this 145 minutes long film, and however troubling they may be, they do not come across as having the power to break a tough man such that his wife can rightfully allege that the system killed him.

In fact, what stands out in writer-director G Prajesh Sen’s narrative is Sathyan’s own asinine insistence on playing a crucial match with a serious and extremely painful leg injury, against the advice of his fond coach (Renji Panicker) and his doctor. His stubbornness ends up causing his body irreparable physical damage.

Sen appears to admire Sathyan’s actions, when in fact they were, if true, remarkably stupid. Yet later, having ruined his own fitness levels, he is shown arguing with selectors – subtly villainised – that determining whether or not he is fit to play should be his prerogative and that his confidence is his fitness. Umm…no.

You do not have to be a sports buff to know that that is a load of rubbish. Perhaps here the film could have addressed the question of whether foolhardiness prompted Sathyan to continue playing with his injured leg or depression had already taken hold of him. Sen, unfortunately, views Sathyan with an uncritical and unanalytical eye, and as a result, what we get here is a fan film steeped in cinematic clichés rather than an in-depth study of an interesting character.

(Possible spoilers ahead)

His childhood is shown in the form of slow mo shots of little Sathyan playing his favoured game in Kannur over Gopi Sundar’s background score. The music – loud, loud music! – is still on when we get a glimpse of his poverty. He plays wearing shoes that he found discarded by the wayside. We see too that his damaged leg was a result of an attack by bullies back then.

This is a long-distance view of the boy, and these scenes are no different from bullet points in a hurried print media article about him. They do nothing to draw us into his story.

Having cursorily wrapped up that part of Sathyan’s life, Captain shifts to the only part it seems genuinely keen on: his adult years as a footballer.

The narrative here gets an episodic feel. Bits and pieces of Sathyan’s journey form interludes between long passages visually dominated by close-ups and slow motion shots either on the playing field or with his wife, where the overbearing music takes centre-stage.

What Sen seems to consider likeable about Sathyan is in fact arrogance. He is shown ticking off Anitha for her disinterest in football despite being the future wife of India’s football captain. On their wedding night, he peremptorily and without provocation tells her he will divorce her the day she stands in the way of his football. Weird pillow talk, that. And in what Sen seems to consider a comical moment, he reduces her to tears seconds later by telling her he is already married to his first love – we can see the laboured joke coming from a mile but she weeps till he asks in surprise why she is crying considering that he is referring to his football.

Their pre-wedding relationship adopts the Mollywood formula for man-woman romances: she pretends to dislike him, but her barely suppressed smile – following a conversation in which she was really rude to him – sends out a different message.

(Spoiler alert ends)

In fact, Captain in its entirety is a parade of clichés by a director of indifferent talent. It is obvious that in Sathyan’s life there is a lovely story waiting to be told. In Sen’s hands though, we neither get a complete sense of the man’s achievements nor truly grasp his struggles.

Even if you, like me, are not a football fanatic, if you combine media reports about Sathyan with snippets from the film, it is evident that a well-researched, well-written biopic of the man could have offered rich insights on human nature, Kerala society, India’s destructive sporting establishment, the fallout of childhood bullying, depression, alcoholism and more.

What we get instead with Captain are broad brush strokes in a plodding drama that is more preoccupied with looking and sounding large and grand than telling a nuanced human story.

The effort at grandeur at one point translates into embarrassing pompousness considering India’s poor track record in world football. In the film’s closing scene, when Sathyan hits a clinching goal in a crucial match, he shrugs off the feat by telling his teammate that no goalie had the strength to stop a ball that was filled with the breath of crores of Indians. Err, okay, that explains why we are such achievers I guess?

After the interval, the narrative becomes unequivocally boring. The insufferable use of music – mournful and theatrically suspenseful or celebratory by turns – might have made Captain intolerable if it were not for Jayasurya’s presence. The actor throws himself into this role and gives it more of himself than the script deserves. His take on Sathyan’s pain, that crumbling face shrunk down from its youthful hauteur, is the only reason why I managed to sit through this film without dozing off.

In the end, Captain’s achievement is that it made me hope for a better-made film on Sathyan.

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