Coming soon to a theatre near you: Azhar, Dhoni and Phogat

Moving on from cricket grounds and TV sets, the sport will seek audience attention from movie screens next


First comes Azhar, starring Emraan Hashmi as Mohammad Azharuddin, the ex-cricketer who battled allegations of match-fixing in a tumultuous life on and off the field. It’s due for release on 13 May.
First comes Azhar, starring Emraan Hashmi as Mohammad Azharuddin, the ex-cricketer who battled allegations of match-fixing in a tumultuous life on and off the field. It’s due for release on 13 May.

New Delhi: Cricket fans may have had a surfeit of the sport with the World T20 championship quickly followed by the Indian Premier League. It doesn’t quite end there. The sport will seek audience attention from movie screens next, moving on from cricket grounds and TV sets.

Due for release are two biopics based on the life of cricketers, which should ensure fans of the sport won’t suffer any withdrawal symptoms when the season is over.

First comes Azhar, starring Emraan Hashmi as Mohammad Azharuddin, the ex-cricketer who battled allegations of match-fixing in a tumultuous life on and off the field. It’s due for release on 13 May.

Next up is M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story on the current limited-overs cricket captain, whose character will be essayed by Sushant Singh Rajput. It will hit screens on 2 September.

The biopic fad isn’t limited to cricket. The year will end with Aamir Khan’s Christmas release Dangal, based on the life of Haryanvi wrestler Mahavir Singh Phogat, father and coach of female grapplers Babita Kumari and Geeta Phogat, who followed him into a sport seen as a male preserve.

And finally, the first-look poster and teaser of Sachin: A Billion Dreams, a biopic of iconic batsman Sachin Tendulkar to be directed by James Erskine, were unveiled this week. 55 Days of Training. One Pair of Trousers. The Sachin Story, reads the intriguing caption on the poster.

“Film-making is a business. There has to be a narrative, but it has to marry with something that will be commercially successful,” said Prasoon Joshi, writer of Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, a biopic of Milkha Singh, the sprinter known as the Flying Sikh.

“So, when you’re picking people whom you will talk about, they have to be subjects that will click and whose life has already found a certain currency. And sport is one such subject which is of interest to people,” added Joshi.

Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, which starred Farhan Akhtar as the sprinter, certainly found currency with the audience. Released in 2013, the movie grossed about Rs.109 crore at the box office, according to website Bollywood Hungama.

Milkha Singh’s life is the stuff movies are made of. He lost his parents in the post-partition riots, moved to Delhi and enlisted in the army, which introduced him to athletics. He is still remembered for his fourth-place finish in the 400m final at the 1960 Olympic Games, a race he led until the halfway mark. His time of 45.73 seconds endured as India’s national record for four decades.

Another sports biopic that found favour with audiences was the eponymous movie based on the life of female boxer Mary Kom, which was released in 2014 and, according to Bollywood Hungama, grossed Rs.62 crore. It starred Priyanka Chopra as Manipur-born Mary Kom.

To be sure, making a sports biopic has some inbuilt advantages. For the audiences, they offer the charm of watching movie stars assume the roles of known sports personalities, pushing themselves out of traditional comfort zones and seeking critical appreciation.

And there are specific marketing opportunities these films lend themselves to.

“The biggest advantage of a sports biopic is that it’s a story of human triumph, and can connect and resonate with people if done correctly,” said Rudrarup Datta, vice-president of marketing at Viacom18 Motion Pictures, which backed Bhaag Milkha Bhaag and Mary Kom.

“So, the thought process is to stay away from any gimmicks and create awareness about their achievements, though there is always a temptation to make things more commercially mainstream,” said Datta.

Such films also allow for several corporate partnerships, he added.

For Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, for instance, Viacom partnered with brands such as financial services company Birla Sun Life, dairy cooperative Amul, media company Getit Infomedia, electronics brand Omron, online retail platform Jabong.com, sports brand Adidas and automobile company Royal Enfield.

For Mary Kom, household consumer durables brand Usha International, ice cream brand Havmor, milk brand Mother Dairy, clothing brand Monte Carlo and Artemis Hospitals came on board.

Bhaag Milkha Bhaag also brought Milkha Singh to most of its promotional events, besides helping the studio amplify noise around the film by participating in an auction for the coveted shoes that Singh wore during the 1960 Rome Olympics.

But there are challenges that come along the way. For instance, remaining true to the sport while eulogizing the sportsperson. Joshi admits he didn’t know much about sprinting while writing Bhaag Milkha Bhaag and preferred to focus on the human drama.

In the case of a sport like cricket that’s followed by tens of millions of Indians, there is much more pressure.

“Any story is challenging, but more so one to do with cricket because people are so well-versed with it,” said Azhar director Tony D’Souza.

D’Souza said his film is not truly a biopic but only a chronicle of some incidents in the life of Azharuddin.

“Everyone’s a champion when it comes to cricket and movies. So, it’s very difficult to portray somebody who has a certain style and elegance about him,” he said.

Industry experts are divided on whether the spate of sports biopics will turn out to be an overdose of the genre.

Sneha Rajani, deputy president and head (motion pictures division) at Sony Pictures Networks, which has co-produced Azhar, insists each film is unique in its own way and has a different story to tell.

Writer Joshi says Bollywood, like many other industries, is only looking for subjects that guarantee returns. And like with any other formula, people will move on once the charm wears out.

A deeper issue with sports biopics remains the lack of nuance.

“What we do with biopics in India is end up making hagiographies. Even if we go into a Sarkar or a Guru space, the idea is to gloss over all the negatives,” said film critic Raja Sen.

A biopic has to adopt a perspective and take a stand, like Robert De Niro’s 1980 warts-and-all sports drama Raging Bull, based on the life of boxer Jake LaMotta, he said.

“The problem also is this is a country where everyone immediately takes offence; anything you say against anybody becomes blasphemy. But a slightly critical telling of our stories would bring out something interesting because unless you see two sides to the story, there is no conflict. If it’s all up-and-up, that makes for boring cinema,” added Sen.

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