Fact? Or rah-rah fiction?

Posted on October 6, 2016


The problem with the recently released biopic of Mahendra Singh Dhoni is the problem with many biopics of the famous: the flaws make way for fawning.

MS Dhoni – The Untold Story is a terrifically entertaining sports saga, but is it a biopic, a “biographical picture”? On the evidence of dictionary definitions, it probably qualifies. Merriam-Webster defines “biography” as “the story of a real person’s life written by someone other than that person” – in the case of the film, that person is the screenwriter (with inputs from the director). The Oxford online dictionary is equally vague: “an account of someone’s life written by someone else.” In other words, the only criteria for something to be labelled a biography (and, by extension, a biopic) appear to be that (1) it’s the story of X, and (2) it’s not written by X. But is that all? And is it enough? For instance, if the writer wove in fictional elements, would it still be a biography? Is the biographer a merciless mirror-maker, or is he a Photoshop artist, carefully masking a wart here, a mole there?

In the case of MS Dhoni, a bigger question raises its hand. Is there any point in expecting “truth,” given that the film has been co-produced by Arun Pandey, whose player management agency, Rhiti Sports, handles Dhoni’s endorsements? Searching for scenes structured around the cricketer’s alleged involvement in the Indian Premier League (IPL) match-fixing scam, therefore, is a little like hoping to find paeans to atheism in the Bible. Also, it’s probably easier to make warts-and-all biopics about mere mortals, like the dacoit Paan Singh Tomar or the lawyer and human-rights activist Shahid Azmi. But cricketers are gods in our country. To suggest that one of them was tempted by Satan is to seriously diminish the film’s box-office prospects.

Like many films about the famous, MS Dhoni is a paradox. Without the cricketer’s name, you would not have a “biopic.” You’d just have the rags-to-riches story of some cricketer from Ranchi. A bookstore would file the novelisation of the screenplay under “Fiction: Underdog.” And yet, even with Dhoni’s name attached to the film, we get only the rousing high points of his career. There’s not a whiff of even the most minor of infractions – say, maintaining a slow over-rate. In a way, it’s still… fiction. It’s like Mary Kom, whose every line of dialogue could have been replaced by “rah-rah,” and the film wouldn’t have been any different.

The point, in these films, isn’t to take tissue samples and put them under the microscope. It’s more about turning man into monument. As The New York Times said in its review of Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs, “Cinematic biographies of the famous are not documentaries. They are allegories: narrative vessels into which meanings and morals are packed like raisins in an oatmeal cookie; modern, secular equivalents of medieval lives of the saints; cautionary tales and beacons of aspiration.” A character in MS Dhoni, when asked why he’s so invested in the player, says, “I was a bit of a cricketer too. But I wasn’t good enough. When I see Dhoni play, it’s as if I’m playing too.” Extend this thought to three hours and ten minutes, and you have the film.

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This isn’t to say that a biopic has to be comprehensive, giving us Dhoni’s first walk, or the first words as he began to talk. A life is lived over years; even the most indulgent film spans but a few hours. But is it too much to expect that we get at least a sense of the man Dhoni was when he was not thinking about or playing cricket? As contrast, consider Steve Jobs. The film zooms in on a fourteen-year period that covers three key product launches – it explicitly situates the public over the personal, teasing out glimpses of the latter only in the context of the former. But MS Dhoni spends its entire first half telling the story of Dhoni before he became… Dhoni, and yet, it finds time for nothing but cricket. Why not hint at this fact found on Wikipedia – that his idols, as a child, were Amitabh Bachchan and Lata Mangeshkar. Also from Wikipedia: “But he also had a mischievous side to his personality. Once, while staying at the railway quarters, Dhoni and a couple of his friends covered themselves in white bedsheets and walked around in the complex late in the night. The night guards were fooled into believing that there were ghosts moving around in the complex.” Could a few fours and sixes not have been sacrificed to give us this Dhoni?

Because these are the insights that make up what the film’s subtitle promises: The Untold Story. Having lived through the Dhoni era, we know what happened on the field. We want what happened in the dressing room. We want the film to tell us the names of the players Dhoni insisted on dropping because they were poor fielders – the scene refers to them, but shies away from identifying them. This is another reason we don’t make good biopics in our country. We have to be very, very careful when it comes to what could be construed as defamation. A filmmaker wants a hit, not a lawsuit.

This isn’t just about MS Dhoni. It’s about biopics in general. Looking at Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi, you’d never guess at the events depicted in Feroz Abbas Khan’s Gandhi My Father, which not only claimed that the Father of the Nation wasn’t a good father to his own son, but also hinted that not everyone was taken in by the Mahatma’s ways. When Bapu is leaving South Africa for good, the white man speaking at his farewell remarks that the guest of honour isn’t, as people seem to think, a saint who strayed into politics so much as a politician trying to become a saint. How odd that the British film treated Gandhi as the Mahatma, while an Indian production said he was just a man, filled with greatness as well as faults.

So it makes sense that, while Indian reviewers have called out MS Dhoni for whitewashing the cricketer, The New York Times said, “The movie is not hagiographic or overly obvious.” Maybe biopics work best when they are about people we don’t know very well. Maybe that is why our better biopics – Shahid, Paan Singh Tomar – are about people who lived far away from the limelight. Everything, thus, is a discovery. Every fact, an untold story.

An edited version of this piece can be found here.

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