At one time, the minimal requirement for a biopic to be made about a man (or woman) wasn’t just a life that lent itself to drama but the subject’s death. Mahatma Gandhi died in 1948. Richard Attenborough’s film came nearly 35 years later. You could point to the films about Mary Kom and Budhia Singh as exceptions to the rule, but even these were made after the most significant chapters of these lives – the Olympic medal, the marathon. But now, we have MS Dhoni – The Untold Story, about a man who is still captaining India, a man whose story is still being told on cricket pitches and television screens across the world. At this rate, the big summer movie of 2017 is going to be Aryan Khan: The Teenage Years. But watching Neeraj Pandey’s film, you see why they couldn’t have waited. It’s already looking like the Virat Kohli era. The three-hour-ten-minute Dhoni, partly produced by Dhoni’s business partner, comes off like both a greatest-hits-filled retirement video and a case for the player’s continuing relevance. It’s shameless. And shamelessly entertaining.
Should you take Dhoni seriously? Very early on, we get the answer: Not at all. For a film subtitled “The Untold Story,” we get this baffling disclaimer, something like “these events should not be construed as true.” Say what? There’s legalese, and there’s downright stupidity. This is like Attenborough saying: Gandhi was born on October 2. But we reserve the right to edit or change this information. Please do not try this at home. What, then, are we to make of the scene where Mahendra Singh Dhoni (a stupendously effective Sushant Singh Rajput, walking the tightrope between outright mimicry and sympathetic interpretation) finds out he’s been selected to play for India A? Dhoni’s excited friends bring him this news while he’s playing badminton. But he doesn’t take his eyes off the game. He shows no emotion. You can see why he’s going to be called Captain Cool – he seems to have ice in his veins. Only when his friends leave, and only after the volley ends, does he permit himself a small smile. Is this a glimpse of what really happened? Or are we not meant to construe this event as true?
But the film is so rousing, I didn’t care after a while. My advice to you: Forget you’re watching a biopic. Think, instead, that it’s the cricketing world’s equivalent of Creed, an underdog story about a wicketkeeper-batsman who just happens to share his name with a real-life celebrity. There are more clichés than you will find in Ravi Shastri’s commentary. (What do we see a Bengali character do? Haggle over the price of fish, of course.) But the screenplay compensates with glorious uncertainties. Like the amusing confusion, at the time of Dhoni’s birth, on whether the child is a girl or boy. Or the surreal pre-interval scene, at a railway platform in Kharagpur. Dhoni is frustrated with his job as ticket collector, which he feels is keeping him from sporting greatness. Hope arrives in the form of a ghost train. There seems to be no one inside, or even in the station. The door of a compartment swings open magically. Dhoni hesitates, then gets in. It’s a salvation scenario out of myth, and it harks back to an earlier scene when Dhoni, as a boy, asked his mother to get him a poster at a religious fair. His mother looks past images of the usual suspects of the Hindu pantheon and her eyes fall on the poster Dhoni wants. It’s a god in blue, and with a helmet. “Yeh kaun se bhagwan ji hain?” she wonders. “Aur yeh kaisa mukut pehan rakha hai?” Perhaps anticipating our incredulousness (Does she really not know Sachin Tendulkar?), Pandey slips in a footnote that people in Bihar (then; Jharkhand now) prefer politics to cricket. Dhoni gets his poster, and the story gets its point across that our cricketers are gods. Now you know why Dhoni is practically a bhajan, the kind set to film tunes. (“Anhonee ko Dhoni kar de…”) Anything else would be blasphemy.
Hence, dramatically speaking, the small complaint that Dhoni is all virtue, no vice. Even as a youngster, he prefers to face a strong team because there’s no point displaying one’s prowess against minnows. Even after becoming a star, Dhoni does not forget his old pals. Dhoni frowns when a friend consumes beer. Dhoni rarely loses his temper. At home, with his uncomprehending father, Dhoni is polite to a fault. And with women? Dhoni goes through life with a crotch guard over his heart – he doesn’t seem very interested in a relationship until he begins to play for Team India. And what about Dhoni’s stint with the Chennai Super Kings? It’s almost as if it never happened. (This is a blue film; there’s no curiosity about yellow.) Apparently, many other things never happened either – his bans, his alleged conflicts of interest. This seems to be a life of less interest to Wisden than Valmiki.
But this hagiography is anchored by rock-solid craft. The first scene, set in 2011, gazes at the Mumbai skyline. We hear the sounds of a distant train. The camera swings around and looks at Wankhede stadium, and we now hear the crowd’s cheers. Without a word being said, the film has bridged its subject’s past and present. The background score contributes heavily. Sometimes, it’s jazz. When Yuvraj Singh begins his blitz, we hear rock. And every time we’re meant to get a lump in the throat, we get the kind of music that would be the national anthem if cricket were a country. It worked. I wept. Yuvraj Singh, portrayed by an astonishing lookalike (Herry Tangri), is the only other player we see. The rest are seen mainly through clever visual effects that splice Rajput into footage of the Indian team. A remarkable aspect of the film is how it seems to be in constant motion, as if acknowledging the importance Dhoni placed on his players’ movement on the field. Even the songs aren’t narrative-halting dream duets. They’re situational, and here, as elsewhere, either the camera is moving, or the characters are, or the agile editing gives the impression of movement. When Dhoni joins the railways, his new boss, Animesh Babu (Kali Prasad Mukherjee, playing the life lesson-dispensing mentor from the Rocky films), snaps on a headband (I laughed out loud) and bowls to the new recruit, who lives up to his awesome reputation. At one point, we don’t see Dhoni’s stroke-making. We don’t follow where the ball goes. We see Animesh Babu following the ball, whipping his neck around in various directions, as the camera stays on him. We don’t need a wagon wheel. His swivelling head is enough.
Kali Prasad Mukherjee is fantastic. All the supporting actors are. The girls (Disha Patani, Kiara Advani) who make the romantic tracks as painless as possible. Rajesh Sharma (Gruff Coach). Kumud Mishra (Gruff Official). Anupam Kher (Gruff Father). And the various locations from small-town India – they’re so vivid, they practically deserve membership in whatever our version of the Screen Actors’ Guild is. The niceness that was a constant in our earlier mainstream cinema, and which we seem to get only in the Salman Khan films of late – we find it in Dhoni. It’s there in the Pakistani shopkeeper who invites Dhoni to make a free international call to India, despite the latter’s surgical strikes against his country’s eleven. There’s niceness in the cricket too, which isn’t depicted as a solitary effort but the coming-together of a community. I could have lived without the overdose of reaction shots from friends and family each time Dhoni plays on TV, but after the most important, most defining six of Dhoni’s career, it’s fitting that we don’t just see him (or his team) celebrating. We cut back to the Sikh sporting-goods store owner who ran around Ranchi, trying to convince people that his pal Dhoni was a promising player. We cut back to another friend, the beer-guzzler who taught Dhoni how to play the helicopter shot. We cut back to the school coach who saw Dhoni as goalie of the football team and decided the boy would make a great wicketkeeper. We even cut back to the commentators from Dhoni’s first inter-school match. Through my film of tears, I half-expected to see the obstetrician who delivered Dhoni, the matchmaker who brought his parents together… It’s the warmest thought in the movies this year, that we delight in the successes of our heroes because we have a hand in creating them.
- “Yeh kaun se bhagwan ji hain?” = Who is this god?
- “Aur yeh kaisa mukut pehan rakha hai?” = And what kind of crown is he wearing?
- Mary Kom = see here
- Budhia Singh = see here
- Aryan Khan = see here
- Creed = see here
- Rocky = see here
- bhajan = see here
- “Anhonee ko Dhoni kar de…” = see here
- Chennai Super Kings = see here
- the Salman Khan films of late = see here; here; here
Copyright ©2016 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.