Viru, Mahi, Shakeel and Guri are adolescent replicas of Viru, Dhoni, Irfan and Harbhajan, the real men in blue. The four boys live for cricket, for there isn’t much else to do in Tezpur, a fictional small town in North India. Some miles away, Hari Sadu (Sanjay Suri) is a passionate coach at an elite school. Harry Oberoi (Milind Soman) is a wealthy fixer. You know where the plot of this film, Say Salaam India, is heading to—the nail-biting, chest-thumping finale, the cricket match between, of course, the elite boys and the sons of the soil (in this case, men in red langotis).
There’s UTV’s Hat Trick, a romantic comedy starring Kunal Kapoor and Rimii Sen. The couple’s fortunes and the course of their relationship has an uncanny parallel—the Indian team’s ebb and tide at the cricket World Cup, the film’s simulated backdrop.
And then, there’s Meera Achrekar (Mandira Bedi), who is less a mathematics teacher, which is her profession, than a fervent worshipper of cricket at her temple—the Wankhede Stadium. Her family, simple chawl folk (including an elder brother who is a failed cricket player), doesn’t understand a girl’s passion for sports. The plot unspools with generous doses of conflict, romance and, finally, the triumph of the cricket fan. Apart from the fact that the Indian-girl-who’s-a-sports-fan story has a successful predecessor in 2002’s Bend It Like Beckham, the extra run that Meerabai Not Out scores over the other two films: Anil Kumble plays himself in it.
Out of the eight sports-themed films releasing in 2007, the three films that use cricket directly or indirectly in the script, will hit theatres the same week that the ICC World Cup begins in West Indies on 13 March. Film-makers and producers might have genuinely identified an audience for the marriage of sports and cinema in India, but the three releases in March are also shrewd marketing ploys.
The logic, of course, is: When cricket takes over, everything else pales into insignificance. “Part of our promotion for the film includes a music video called Wicket Bacha that has cricket figures such as Harsha Bhogle and Gautam Bhimani cheering the Indian team,” says Siddharth Kapoor, senior vice-president, marketing and distribution, UTV Films. The production house has also tied up with ESPN and Star Sports for promotions. Reebok readily signed up as corporate sponsor for Say Salaam India, the first feature film by documentary film-maker Subhash Kapoor.
So isn’t there a danger of overkill? Will people watch these films even if the Indian team doesn’t perform well in the first quarter of the ICC tournament? “India’s performance will have little to do with the box office success of Hat Trick. The idea is to grab people’s attention when cricket is uppermost in their minds,” Kapoor says.
Producers also say that it’s a win-win game for them anyway. All the three films use the tried-and-tested formula—cricket providing the narrative thrust for stories that are about the triumph of the human will. The underdog has won despite overwhelming odds in Ashutosh Gowarikar’s Lagaan and Nagesh Kukunoor’s Iqbal—the two enormously successful precedents in this genre. So, the marketing logic is: If India is triumphant, the euphoria will be heightened by these films and if India fails, there’s the make-believe win played out in 35-mm to heal our bruised hearts.
Yet, there is reason to believe that India might finally have its own body of sports films. And not just small-budget, multiplex films. Yashraj Films has two films in post-production that are directly or indirectly related to sports. They’ve signed on Shimit Amin, director of Ab Tak Chappan, for Chak De, a film about a disgraced hockey player who returns to the game after seven-year-long to become the coach of an Indian women’s hockey team.
With Shah Rukh Khan playing the lead role, the estimated budget of the film is Rs20 crore. The other film, Tara Rum Pum Pum, is a romantic comedy (with Saif Ali Khan and Rani Mukherjee in the lead, and an estimated budget of Rs25 crore) set in the UK, with car racing as its backdrop. Both these films will open around May, along with the three others, now in various stages of production—UTV’s Goal (John Abraham and Bipasha Basu, and football), Mukta Searchlight’s Cycle Kick (football in a coastal Indian town, again a sweet-success-of-the-underdog story) and choreographer-turned-director Ahmed Khan’s Yahan Ke Hum Sikander (a multi-starrer about cricket and religion, with Suniel Shetty in the lead role).
Before Lagaan, the last film that had something to do with sports, among many other things, was Dev Anand’s drama about team rivalry, terrorism and cricket, Awwal Number, with Aamir Khan and Aditya Pancholi. But in most Hindi films, sports (mostly either golf or snooker) is the hero’s pastime. On rare occasions, the heroine picks up the badminton racket, although cricket has cropped up every now and then—remember Toffee, the Pomeranian, in Sooraj Barjatya’s Hum Aapke Hain Koun, playing the biased umpire? Or, even more forgettable, former West Indian skipper Frank Worrell’s brief, animated interaction with Raj Kapoor and Rajshree when the couple go to the Caribbeans in Around The World in 8 Dollars.
More than 40 years later, the success of Iqbal encouraged Ritesh Sinha, a Mumbai-based film-maker and owner of Ten Films, a production house, to tie up with Italy’s Federation Internationale Cinema Television Sportifs (FICTS) for India’s first festival of sports films, in 2006. FICTS hosts the same festival every October in Milan and the winners of the Indian festival are screened for a global audience. Says Sinha, who received about 10 films (mostly shorts and documentaries) made in India for this year’s festival held in January, “The fact that we have many more sports films now says a lot about the growth of our sports industry in general. Our sports heroes are as glamorous as filmstars, if not more.”
Mumbai-based actor Harsh Vashisth, whose 20-minute film, Learning to Fly, was screened at this year’s FICTS festival, plans to make more films about sports. A volleyball player himself, Vashisth teamed up with the lighting assistant of a TV serial he acts in, to make his first film. An amateur, but charming film, it’s about a group of listless city kids discovering the joys of outdoor sports through volleyball.
The response to this festival—210 entries and 79 screenings—and the eight releases this year suggest that 2007 may be the year that the genre of sports films is born in India. Just when we will stop glorifying the underdog is another story.