With the leaked image of Akshay Kumar from the sets of Gold going viral, the buzz surrounding the changing face of the sports biopic genre in Bollywood is only bound to increase. The upcoming Reema Kagti-directed film chronicles the story of hockey legend Balbir Singh Sr. and independent India’s first ever Olympic gold medal win at the 1948 London Olympics. And along with Shaad Ali’s Soorma,which revolves around the inspiring comeback of hockey ace Sandeep Kumar, it is the second high-profile hockey film set to release next year. Up until a few years ago, a sports film was automatically assumed to be a cricket-centric project but such assumptions are a thing of the past. While a big-ticket cricket film such as the upcoming Kabir Khan production of India’s 1983 World Cup triumph with Ranveer Singh playing Kapil Dev still makes news, cricket is no longer the end-all when it comes to films within the genre that grabs eyeballs.
Men’s cricket may have dominated India’s sporting scene but with films on badminton stars, boxing champs, iconic wrestlers, hockey legends, ace shooters, trailblazer athletes in the pipeline, it’s more or less a level playing field when it comes to the sports biopic. Even when India won the 1983 cricket World Cup by beating the then world champs, West Indies, the interest in sports films took a while to cement its feet. The year that saw perhaps the first full-blown cricket film in the form of Mohan Kumar’s All Rounder (1984) also witnessed the release of Prakash Jha’s Hip, Hip, Hurray (1984), which remains one of the best films to blend sports (football) perfectly into the realm of popular Hindi films. While the former was a washout, the latter enjoyed limited success. Intriguingly enough, the same year also saw the release of a Rocky (1974) inspired Boxer (1984) featuring Mithun Chakraborty but even though the film was a success, it could not evoke the same passion — either for the underdog or the sport. Films with other sports like cycling – Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar (1992), or incidents from the world of sports like the Syed Modi murder – Sau Crore (1991) along with the typical cricket film – Dev Anand’s Awwal Number (1990) came in quick succession in the 1990s but the fortunes of the sports film continued to be poor up for almost a decade until Lagaan (2001). The Ashutosh Gowariker-directed Oscar-nominated film evinced belief that a sports-based Hindi film could be a viable proposition but the old mindset persisted until Chak De! India (2007) released.
The way Chak De! India merged the so-called sports element of the script with the standard story-telling elements of 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 two: any film could be centred around sports and not come across like a documentary. It was also one of the first films that confirmed that, even in India, when it came to films based on sports there could be something more than just cricket. While it’s true that cricket might have the most number of films centered around it – Iqbal (2005), Stumped (2003), Say Salaam India (2007), Victory (2009), Hattrick (2007), the Tamil ‘street cricket’ film Chennai 60028 (2007), 99 (2009), Jannat (2008), Dil Bole Hadipaa! (2009), Victory (2009), Patiala House (2011) and MS Dhoni: The Untold Story (2016) – the ‘others’ are not only catching up but also appear to generate more passion among the viewers.
Besides Chak De India!, one can also attribute Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (2013) and Mary Kom (2014) for helping change the perception. More than the sports film coming of age via greater depiction of sports or sportspersons, it was also the emergence of the biopic genre that changed the fortunes of the sports film and in this context, both Bhaag Milkha Bhaag and Mary Kom helped change the tide. It is this transformation that ensured that great human stories that surround us will somehow filter into Bollywood. As a result last year, we saw a bevy of sports films — Saala Khadoos, Freaky Ali, Sultan, Azhar, M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story and Dangal. Soorma, that features Diljit Dosanjh as Sandeep Singh, is the story of the ex-captain of the Indian hockey team, who was paralysed after being hit by an accidental gunshot in a train and returned to the team after 2 years. The film is much more than a sports film and the same goes for most upcoming films in the genre. The upcoming Abhinav Bindra biopic that features Harshvardhan Kapoor as the first Indian to win an individual Olympic gold and his real-life father Anil Kapoor playing his reel dad also has the makings of a great underdog fable.
Much like all great cinema, these films also draw on emotions that might not be wholly rational but celebrate a moment of unity created by sporting success. But at the same time, the viewer is intelligent enough to know the symbolism and look at the bigger message than gimmickry. An Azhar being rejected by the viewers while a Paan Singh Tomar, MS Dhoni: The Untold Story and Dangal being embraced despite creative liberties show true acceptance of the sports film. Intriguingly enough, the list of sports films that are currently under-production also reveals two anomalies from what is the usual standard in popular Hindi films. Firstly, despite the real-life popularity of cricket, it’s the other sports that make up the ‘real’ stories (Mary Kom, Geeta Phogat and Babita Kumari [Dangal], Abhinav Bindra, Mir Ranjan Negi [Chak De! India], Milkha Singh, Paan Singh Tomar, etc.) and secondly, unlike the typically male-dominated projects, many of the sports films feature women as the leads. With women-centric films breaking away from previously associated notions of being ‘smaller’ films, the sports biopic genre is witnessing an increase in films that celebrate heroes. A film on Saina Nehwal, who inspired an entire generation of young boys and girls to take to badminton or Jhulan Goswami, the world’s highest wicket-taker in women’s ODIs and PT Usha cannot be passed off as the proverbial woman-centric films as Bollywood of past would do.