Dangal, MS Dhoni, Mary Kom: What explains Bollywood’s new-found love for sports biopic?
When it comes to movie making, a story that has been often repeated is that there are 11 movie scripts, or was it eight movie scripts, that every movie borrows from. Now, the research to back this up is obviously not easy to find and quite honestly, it probably doesn’t exist.
But in Bollywood, if there is a form of storytelling that has racked up plenty of hype and box-office returns, it is the sporting biopic.
In the last decade alone, film watchers have been treated to biopics on celebrated sporting figures like Mary Kom, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Mohammad Azharuddin, Milkha Singh and the Phogat sisters.
For a film industry that is legendary for drama and glamour, what explains this trend?
To begin with, fans of good cinema would not be starved of good sporting biopics as Hollywood has kept the conveyor belt running for many years now.
Although not a biopic, the initial success of the Rocky series cemented boxing as a sport that translates well on screen and the sport has given moviegoers its fair share of riveting stories, not to forget Robert de Niro’s masterful rendition of Jake LaMotta in Martin Scorsese’s unforgettable Raging Bull.
But moving past boxing, Hollywood has added much-needed diversity into the biopic mix.
Who can forget the story of Irish boxer Micky Ward, a movie that not only won Micky Rourke a Golden Globe but also the love and adulation of amateur wrestler everywhere? Or the touching story of Seabiscuit?
A more left-field pick would be Moneyball, a standout sporting biopic where the central role was not played by an athlete but a coach whose data-driven recruitment takes a nondescript Oakland Athletics team to the verge of a World Series triumph.
But why did India miss the bus for so long and why is it making all the sense in the world now?
One theory can run that Indians are exposed to more news and therefore more stories than ever before. In the 50s and 60s, numerous sporting achievements that would’ve garnered blanket press coverage in the times of social media were sadly not that lucky in a time when mass media was still in its nascence.
It is no wonder that many Indians will be hard-pressed to recall the names of hockey legends of days gone by or recall that once upon a time India was a footballing powerhouse. The fact that we get a chance to see more of our athletes and appreciate their feats means that for a director or producer, the odds don’t appear as unreasonable as they once did.
A great example of this is Mary Kom, a world-beating boxer who got her own biopic in 2014 but in the past, many standout athletes from the North-East were simply not in the reckoning, partly down to an isolationist thinking and partly down to their achievements going under the radar.
The second reason could be that with enhanced technology, directors have more equipment in their arsenal and therefore, they can capture the intensity of an athlete competing in a much more effective manner than say in years gone by.
Ask any sports fan what happens when a movie on Sports isn’t able to match the tension on the field, and they will tell you that the movie won’t register beyond a single watch.
But with cameras coming up leaps and bounds and directors also have the freedom to get close to the action and reference footage from the athletes' life - imagine YouTube not existing - and there can be little doubt that technology has helped.
Look back at Bhaag Milkha Bhaag and the director would’ve had very little to work with, in the way of footage. But modern camera equipment in the hands of a seasoned filmmaker led to Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra doing justice to one of India’s greatest athletes.
But the final point, perhaps even the most important point, is that Indian audiences have responded to stories that do not play on the monochromatic storytelling that has been the bane of Bollywood in the past.
A younger audience is always on the lookout for interesting stories and exposure and access to sports that you would not normally relate to India has led to filmmakers and producers willing to roll the dice. Two movies that champion this shift are Dangal and Pan Singh Tomar. Story-wise, both of these couldn’t be any more different.
One is about the story of a celebrated wrestler in rural Haryana training his two daughters to fulfill his cherished, yet unfulfilled dream, of winning a gold medal in an International competition.
The other is also a story from the Indian heartland where a legendary army officer cum steeplechase champion goes through a complete U-turn and becomes a dacoit in the Chambal region.
For any fan of Sport, Bollywood’s sudden affection towards our athletes is something that is a welcome change from years of neglect. With some stellar stories already in the pipeline - Kapil Dev biopic, Mohan Bagan’s 1911 triumph, and even a story of a women’s basketball team from Chattisgarh, just to name a few - and moviegoers and sports fans will definitely be cheering from the sidelines.