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June 19, 2017

Why Great Sports Movies Go Beyond The Game

Text by Shashi Baliga

From being the setting for songs and dances to becoming a pivotal part of plots, the depiction of sports in Hindi cinema has changed dramatically…

There’s an intriguing connection between Aamir Khan, the ‘Sports Movie’ and ‘The Cause’ in Hindi cinema. It started in 1990 with Dev Anand’s Awwal Number in which Khan hits the winning stroke for the country in a cricket match threatened by a terrorist bomb. Then came Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander (1992). Here, Khan, the naughty underdog, won that gruelling cycle race for the greater glory of family and college. Almost a decade later came Lagaan (2001) which showed the hero hitting the most famous sixer in Hindi cinema for his village, country, freedom and throw-in-whatever-else-you-want. And then there’s Dangal (2016), where (via his daughters) he scores once more, with feeling, for country, boxing and women’s empowerment — proving that even when he’s kept away from the arena, you can’t seem to lose with Khan around. Not only has this Khan been a flag-bearer for the sports movie in Hindi cinema, you could trace the popularity of the genre in his career graph — a hesitant beginning, the build-up, the iconic moment and today, a veritable explosion.

Lagaan was a landmark in many aspects, one of which was the narrative use and cinematic depiction of a sport. And in the 15-odd years after the movie, sports films and biopics have been popping out non-stop from the Bollywood factory (see box). Apart from these flicks, we now await biopics on hockey legend Dhyan Chand and badminton champs PV Sindhu and Saina Nehwal.

If further (and perhaps final) proof is needed of the inroads sport has made in Bollywood, tennis queen Sania Mirza made her debut on Koffee With Karan this season — which, as you know, is as high as you get on the B-Town ladder. (For the record, Mahesh Bhupathi was the first sportsperson to grace the couch when he appeared with his actor-wife Lara Dutta Bhupathi.) And to think that, for the decades before Lagaan, Bollywood hadn’t focused too much on the sporting spirit. Dara Singh was the legendary exception of course, but his films were considered B-grade ones, not worthy of a high-ranking hero.

But the ’70s and the two decades that followed were a time when the formula film reigned supreme in Hindi cinema. And sports simply didn’t seem to fit in. How could the hero be seen in a large part of the film with sweaty skin and baggy sports outfits? What did one do with a heroine handicapped by no make-up (okay, very little make-up), no chandelier earrings, no teased-to-death hairdos? Plus, short skirts are sexy, but how many wardrobe changes would regular sports gear allow her?

So much easier to put Dharmendra in a gladiator-style costume and have him slug it out with his macho Punjabi muscles on display. (Those thunderous scenes and thighs now rank high in the camp filmi pantheon, which only goes to prove that Manmohan Desai knew what he was doing in Dharam Veer, (1977)).

Or you could use a bit of game playing to spice up a song picturisation. So make Jeetendra mince about a badminton court in his impossibly tight white pants, while singing Dhal Gaya Din and trying to kiss Leena Chandavarkar through a badminton net. Our heroine, resplendent in full make-up and a shiny pink silk outfit, made only one concession to the theme — she used her dupatta as a bandeau for her hair to show you that she was really serious about the game.

It was all so laughable — because Hindi cinema refused to take sports seriously. The considered opinion in B-Town was that sports sold on the field, not the box office. Though Mithun Chakraborty’s Boxer (1984) was the rare hit, the tepid reception to films like Awwal Number, Main Intequam Loonga (1982) or Prakash Jha’s Hip Hip Hurray (1984) proved the point. Even Maalamaal (1988), a movie that starred no less than Naseeruddin Shah and Sunil Gavaskar in a guest appearance, turned out so atrocious that it crashed. Any surprise then that Aamir Khan could find no producer to back a story about a bunch of villagers in dusty dhotis playing cricket on a maidan in colonial India? He had to eventually produce it himself. We should be grateful for his leap of faith — Lagaan, at once radical and straight from the heartland, would go on to change the rules of the game. And here we are today with Dangal, another rural nail-biter about sports, dreams and patriotism, that’s reportedly become Hindi cinema’s most profitable film ever.

So what’s changed? The short answer: a reality check. Middle-aged heroes still romance nubile young things (looks like that’s not going anywhere anytime soon) but no heroine in the movies today would dare step on a badminton or tennis court dressed like Chandavarkar. Whether it is hockey, boxing or wrestling, they step out looking the part with trained body language, correct sporting gear, and a clever no make-up look.

Indeed, the posters for Dangal and to a lesser degree, Mary Kom and Sultan, showed just how far the definition of the Hindi film heroine has grown. The Dangal girls, in their tees, tracks and close crops that would do an army man proud, are the antithesis of the traditional leading lady. These are women who are knocking men out on screen as happily as Dara Singh once did. The camera does not sexualise their bodies (though, interestingly enough, the same could not be said for Farhan Akhtar in Bhaag Milkha Bhaag). If they have some make-up on during the game, it’s because many of their real-life counterparts like to dress up for the court today. Most importantly, they are women who go after what they want with a passion that is unapologetic and will not be stopped.

These heroines show us why great sports movies always go beyond the game. They respect the pursuit of excellence, they inspire us and they tell us a lot about the times we live in. There’s much to celebrate today besides India’s on-court victories.

The ScoreCard
Some sports movies that have rolled out of Bollywood in recent years….

Cricket Iqbal (2005), Dil Bole Hadippa! (2009), Ferrari Ki Sawaari (2012), Kai Po Che! (2013), Azhar and M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story (2016)

Wrestling Sultan and Dangal (2016)

Athletics Paan Singh Tomar (2012), Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (2013)

Boxing Mary Kom (2014), Saala Khadoos (2016)

Hockey Chak De! India (2007)

Football Dhan Dhana Dhan Goal (2007)

Mixed martial arts Brothers (2015)

Car racing Ta Ra Rum Pum (2007)

Mountaineering Poorna (2017)

Roller skating Hawaa Hawaai (2014)

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