In a scenario dominated largely by unsporting, illiterate, semi-literate lot, pot-bellied distributors, blood-sucking financiers, mainstream Hindi cinema has most thrived on anything but melodrama, and adventure being limited to costume, period dramas per se, sports as a subject never seemed to fire the imagination of story writers and filmmakers, except for a footage item. The 50s were largely relied on the hopes as well as the dying of dreams in post-Independence India. The 60s were dominated by family-based subjects; the 70s saw heightened romance and frustration-related violence; the 90s centered on re-modelled romance; and the 21st century is all about inventiveness, experiment, boldness, and cutting-edge romance. Where was the time to look elsewhere?
And if anyone did try to build a story on sports or sporting events, its box-office dispelled any further forays in the matter, like for instance Subodh Mukherjee’s-1956-Dev Anand-Mala Sinha starrer, Love Marriage. In any case, in the first decade of the present century except for cricket, no other sport really fired universal enthusiasm amongst the masses, even though hockey and football did bring about frenzied moments in Bengal and down South. Mansoor Khan centred a love story around cycle race amongst colligates in Jo Jita Wohi Sikandar (1992). After the massive box-office acceptance of Shamit Amin’s solo-hero Shah Rukh Khan starrer Chak De! India, Vivek Agnihotri tried to follow suit by directing John Abraham in Dhan Dhana Dhan Goal in 2007 based on football but with disastrous results. But all said and done despite mixed results, the cricket fever is failing to subside.
In the mid-1980s, Dev Anand again tried to revive interest in the game by casting the new sensation, Aamir Khan opposite himself, assorted other characters, and a new heroine, Ektaa in a film called Awwal Number. It dealt with the failing fortunes on the field of a celebrated cricketer, who is replaced by a rank newcomer—his own step-brother who is also the Chairman of the Selection Committee. And in order to avenge himself he implants a bomb under the batting crease. Notwithstanding other flaws, the actor-producer-director’s usual narcissist traits over-rode the thrilling storyline and the film turned turtle at the box office. Raiding the wave of success after Love Story, Kumar Gaurav worked in a turkey called All Rounder. Another star gathers dust on the cricket field.
Big time interest in the game manifested itself with Ashutosh Gowarikar’s Aamir Khan-starrer Lagaan. In this period drama set in the British times, the hero, Bhuvan accepts the challenge from the veteran English players to a game of cricket for waving off double taxation, and how he leads a team of 11-uninitaited players to victory.
Naseeruddin Shah starrer Maalamaal (in which Sunil Gavaskar made a guest appearance) is about Raj, a cricket-enthusiast slum dweller who inherits millions with the condition that he must spend his fortune within a month. Naseer also played a pivotal role in Iqbal, in which he plays mentor to a deaf and dumb boy who dreams of sporting the India colours some day. When Iqbal is thrown out of the academy, he seeks help of an ex-star cricketer, Mohit (Naseer) who is living the life of a recluse drunkard. Kapil Dev made a guest appearance as a national selector who gets Iqbal a place in the national eleven. The low budget film was a box office success.
Say Salaam India drew heavily from Iqbal and Lagaan, laying emphasis on the dreams of four have-not youngsters, passionate about the game in a school where wrestling enjoys greater patronage. When coach Hari Sadu is summarily dismissed on false accusations, and replaced by a suave Harry Oberoi (Milind Soman) a fixer more than a coach, he seeks to avenge humiliation by converting the wrestling team into cricket enthusiasts and win the inter-school trophy, is what the film directed by debutant Subhash Kapoor is all about. But despite some thrilling moments, the film didn’t do well at the ticket window.
Released in December 2008, and directed by Chandrakant Kulkarni with Mandira Bedi in a deglamourised role, Meerabai Not Out! was a non-starter from the word go though it had an interesting storyline. It is about a mathematic teacher, Meera Achrekar living in a Mumbai chawl and her obsession with cricket and Anil Kumble. Intended to showcase the country’s obsession with cricket, initiated by her brother Mahesh who played Ranji Trophy at Wankhede Stadium. While a disheartened Mahesh now looks at the game cynically, Meera is absolutely crazy about it until cupid strikes. Yet, it is divided between boyfriend Arjun and cheering for India and Anil Kumble.
Ajit Pal’s Victory (2009) shot in Australia and India and supposedly the most expensive film on the subject, it starred Harman Baweja with Amrita Rao, Anupam Kher, Gulshan Grover and a galaxy of international cricketers, but it failed to muster any support at the box office. Unlike the recent flop, Patiala House here it is the protagonist’s father who dreams of a great career for his son. With some touching moments depicting the divide between the rise and the fall, like the character played by Aditya Pancholi in Awwal Number, and the role media plays in making and unmaking a star, but how single-minded determination can get one back his place in the sun, and his position in the national team.
Patiala House (2011) directed by Nikhil Advani, though centring on cricket has too many sub-plots making the broth sour. Gattu (Akshay Kumar) is an obedient son of Gurtej Singh Kahlon (Rishi Kapoor), a determined Sikh who successfully rid South Hall region of racialism, having earlier suffered at the hands of the whites. Gattu is a good cricket player but his father is dead against his joining a team consisting mostly of whites. Egged on by others he tries and is selected to play. The whole of South Hall rallies around him. Gattu’s last ball performance leads England to victory, and a repenting father apologises to his son for all the abuse heaped on him. Gattu’s character is loosely based on leggie Monty Panesar, who has been in and out of the England team in recent years. It was a box office disaster.
It is paradoxical that a country that’s so obsessed with the game should turn its gaze from seeing it in a dramatised form. Perhaps, there lies the answer. Too much real cricket.
By Suresh Kohli