Dangal, Lagaan, Chak De! India, Paan Singh Tomar: The sports film as a political phenomenon

MK Raghavendra

Jan,07 2017 09:23:14 IST

The phenomenal successes of Sultan and Dangal in 2016 make it apparent that the sports film has become a reliable commercial model in Indian cinema today — but this has not always been the case.

There were eminently watchable films about sport in the 1980s and 1990s like Hip, Hip, Hurray (1984) and Jo Jeeta Hai Wohi Sikandar (1992) which were not successes. The film that turned the tide was Lagaan (2001). Lagaan did something the earlier films did not, which was to fuse sport with nationalism. The mid to late 1990s were a particularly fertile period for nationalism in cinema (films like Border, 1997) – and the reason was apparently the economic liberalisation of 1991 which implied the end of ‘social concern’ as far as Hindi cinema was concerned; the class conflicts of the earlier films (Damini, 1993, being one of the last) left Bollywood. The result was that films either denied such conflict as in Hum Aaapke Hain Koun (1994) which dealt with social life as ‘Ramrajya’ or they pushed conflict to the nation’s boundaries. When the boundary was in space, the adversary became Pakistan (Border) and when it was in time, the adversary became the British, beginning with 1942: A Love Story (1994).

Lagaan would not have been possible if cricket nationalism had not also come to the fore at around the same time. The obsessive association between cricket and the nation was made only in the 1990s, even India’s Prudential Cup triumph of 1983 not doing so earlier. Cricket’s increasing popularity after 1990 has been widely attributed to the growth of television channels but another factor could have been the gaining economic power of the Anglophone Indian, with the rise of the new economy. Cricket had been patronised largely by the middle classes; cricketers worked in public-sector banks while hockey players were from the railways, industry or the military. The game may have a wider following today but the products endorsed by cricketers and the dominance of English-language slogans at cricket matches suggest that cricket’s middle-class moorings remain intact.

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Sport, it has been convincingly argued by theorists of globalisation, can be a powerful means of articulating differences in the global age and sport nationalism is a useful way in which a public affected by globalisation could give expression to national pride. In India, after 2000, (middle-class) Indians who are increasingly involved in the global economy tend to support neoliberal policies, i.e. they favour private initiatives rather than state intervention in the public space. If one looks at a few sports films from after 2000, one finds that the way the films are constructed bears out this proposition.

Iqbal (2005) followed Lagaan in being about cricket since there was little evidence that sport nationalism extended beyond it. But more interesting are Iqbal’s affinities with Guru (2007). The protagonists of both films have representatives of entrenched power as adversaries, people who will not permit a level playing field to the capable outsider. Both Iqbal and Guru have their eyes set on the global and the films both conclude with their protagonists going international/global successfully. Iqbal’s family being saved from financial ruin is shown to owe to market forces — a signing advance which acknowledges his abilities — and this provides more evidence of the film’s neoliberal sympathies.

Chak De! India (2007) took a giant leap by not being about cricket but about women’s hockey. However, this was made possible, I suggest, by the brief public disenchantment with cricket after India’s dismal showing in the 2007 World Cup, when they did not qualify for the Super Eight. The male protagonist in Chak De! India is former hockey player and coach Kabir Khan, whose patriotic credentials are suspected when the Indian team loses to Pakistan. The other political aspects in the film pertain to women players from different states winning only when they realise that they are playing for ‘for India’. A motif (repeated in other films later) is the decrying of official bodies and recognition, since state functionaries ‘act only for personal gain’; also scorned are state incentives like flats for sportspersons. This is the converse of Iqbal which emphasises that only market recognition is honourable.

The antipathy towards officialdom finds its logical apogee in Paan Singh Tomar (2012), the biopic of a soldier and seven times national steeplechase champion who became a baghi (dacoit) and was later gunned down in a police encounter. Paan Singh’s grouse in the film (as represented to the law) is not that he does not get justice but that being a national hero does not entitle him to preferential treatment. At the moral climax of the film, the protagonist makes a policeman salute his own uniform. Implied is that loyalty towards the nation does not mean respect for the state on account of the state being corrupted; connecting directly with the nation as a ‘hero’ is a better manifestation of patriotism.

Lagaan is, strictly speaking, not a sports film like these other examples since it is not about excelling in sport but about political emancipation. Sultan is also not a sports film either but designed as a vehicle for Salman Khan’s prowess as a strong man; it therefore includes melodramatic devices (the death of Sultan’s child when he is fighting in a competition; he being forgotten by the nation despite being an Olympic gold medallist) in order to play upon the spectator’s emotions towards the star. Parts of it are closer to Dara Singh’s films of the 1960s which tried to create a legend around him. Like many of Salman Khan’s recent films, its storytelling strategies suggest a less cosmopolitan audience than Dangal.

Sultan invokes the nation as the object of devotion but only perfunctorily, since its focus is Salman Khan in a new avatar, but Dangal belongs to the same category as the other films in being a vehicle for sports patriotism. It is billed as a ‘biopic’ — which implies that it will take the form of a personal biography — but there is little outside the familiar formula to be found in the film. Each of the generic examples described earlier has one or more additional issues outside of nationalism: in Chak De! India it is partly the patriotic impulses of the honourable Muslim being questioned in India. Paan Singh Tomar describes rural India in some detail and how anarchy reigns in it. Sultan includes the half-hearted motif of public service through blood donation. Dangal takes up the issue of the girl child and its continued neglect in India; it has as its hero a man who trained his daughters to be wrestlers. Without this secondary issue, there is too little going on in Dangal since its interpersonal relations are one-dimensional, and there is little social nuance of any kind. Another strategy in Dangal (and reminiscent of Lagaan) is to keep the spectators involved through detailed expositions of actual games/ competitions, so that one responds to large sections of the film as to actual sporting events.

Dangal has been widely written about and does not need further description. But the reader will get a good idea of its formulaic nature from the following key points in its narrative: a) Mahavir Singh Phogat wants sons but his wife begets daughters b) but he is persuaded to train them as wrestlers on seeing their capacity for fighting c) Phogat is mocked initially but is taken seriously after the girls’ successes locally d) the girls are admitted to a National Academy but receive inadequate  training  e) Phogat enters into conflict with the conniving coach and sports officialdom f ) the girls come out successful on account of learning from their devoted father rather than the coach provided by the government.

In Dangal again we find the same decrying of the state and officialdom found in Chak De! India and Paan Singh Tomar, and at the crowning moment Geeta Phogat acknowledges only her father and not the academy. This disdain for the state and its rewards also finds reflection in Mary Kom (2014) when Mary rejects the job of police constable offered to her after she becomes boxing champion. Bunty in Bunty Aur Babli (2005), equally the product of neoliberal sympathies, rejected state employment in the railways.

The sports film in India is arguably a genre catering to the middle-class since its characters are more realistic like those of the former ‘middle cinema’ — and this separates Dangal from the lower appeal of a blockbuster like Sultan. The political side of the sports film is therefore largely a reflection of the political attitudes of the middle-classes. If one were to describe the political side of the sports film, one could roughly say that it is dominated by two elements: patriotic fervour towards the nation in the abstract through the emblem of the achiever in sport and disenchantment with the state in terms of its actual functioning. In order to reconcile the seeming contradiction here, the films hit upon the ruse of the nation being embodied in the sport, as it were; Geeta Phogat’s victory is the nation’s victory.

Sports patriotism is a different kind of patriotism from the kind in Upkar (1967) and Border because those films lauded acts (progressive farming, fighting a national enemy) which are of material benefit to the public, which sport does not intrinsically offer. We may take pride in our countryperson being an achiever but all achievement (also in business, the sciences and the arts) cannot be motivated by patriotism. If we take pride in some of the richest people being Indian, does acquiring wealth become patriotic?  The sentiment that sport unifies the nation is often expressed in the films but one wonders if an activity which has no material benefits accruing to the public can become a ‘unifying factor’.  This is not to decry achievement but achievers benefit themselves primarily and the fields they work in. For an achiever to be deemed patriotic he/she should do things of benefit to his/her countrymen — like a sportsperson founding an academy for excellence, without turning it into a commercial enterprise.

Sports nationalism which has gripped the middle-classes has no altruistic component and that is its greatest limitation. It is essentially only a way of gaining an identity for oneself in the global world and, in this respect, is not qualitatively different from club loyalty in sport — i.e. being supporters of Arsenal or Mohun Bagan.  As patriotism, it is incompatible with contempt/distaste for the state — which most of the sports films after Lagaan exhibit. The patriotism engendered by neoliberalism is perhaps not true patriotism at all because it does not see inclusivity as a necessary constituent. Regardless of how the Indian state actually functions today, it is perhaps only the just state which can create the inclusive nation.

MK Raghavendra is a Swarna Kamal winning film scholar and author of The Oxford India Short Introduction to Bollywood (2016)

Updated Date: Jan 07, 2017 09:23 AM