Shortly after winning his 11th Grand Slam title at this year’s Australian Open, when Leander Paes said he was considering a future in films, sports aficionados went into a bit of a tailspin. He must be pulling a fast one. Not him too, surely not Lee.
What attracts sports stars to films would make for a fascinating psycho-sociological thesis, but the simplest explanation is that there is scope for a natural extension of fame and being part of the glamour brigade, the beautiful people. High-achieving sportspersons get so used to being in the public eye that being out of the limelight can be a frightening thought; moreover, with sports now also becoming an integral part of the entertainment industry, the switch from one medium to the other is not considered diabolical.
Slam duck: Basketball legend Michael Jordan in a still from ’Space Jam’. AFP
It would be churlish also to ignore the “creative” calling. There is an actor in all of us, goes the old truism and obviously there is nothing unsustainable about sportspersons wanting to be in the mainstream rather than only fantasize: except that barely a few from a whole clutch of renowned internationals who have ventured into the world of make-up and make-believe have been able to make it count. For the most, it reads like a long list of misplaced zeal if not outright mishaps.
On the other hand, films based on sport (or with sports as a backdrop) with “regular” actors have had a fair measure of success, for example Chariots of Fire (athletics), Ali (on the life of the boxer, played superbly by Will Smith), Jerry Maguire (Tom Cruise), Lagaan (cricket, Aamir Khan), Chak De! India (hockey, Shah Rukh Khan) to name only a few from Hollywood and Bollywood.
The only abiding success story of a super sports star who also became a superstar in films features Johnny Weissmuller aka Tarzan, and dates back to the 1930s and 1940s. Weissmuller was a multiple Olympic gold-medal winning swimmer in the 1924 and 1928 Olympic games, breaking the record in every event he participated in and thereafter quickly plunged into showbiz, his “perfect” body discovered to be a natural fit for the character created by Edgar Rice Burroughs.
Weissmuller, records Wikipedia, came alive on screen in Tarzan the Ape Man. This was a landmark film which not only earned the attention of critics, but also set the box office on fire. His studio, MGM, billed him as “the only man in Hollywood who’s natural in the flesh and can act without clothes”, which was not quite as hyperbolic as may seem. Weissmuller, champion swimmer, was indeed a glorious specimen of the human race. Most men craved to be like him, and even more women, well, just craved for him.
There were several Tarzan films featuring Weissmuller over the next decade and a half, by which time the two personas had merged so much in the public perception that it became difficult to tell one from the other. But Weissmuller was not to suffer from any crisis of identity. Indeed, legend has it that in a visit to Cuba during the revolution, when surrounded by revolutionaries, he let out the famous Tarzan yell after which his abductors smiled, nodded to each other and let him go.
Alas, it is difficult to find a replicate of the Weissmuller success story in the history of sports and cinema anywhere, unless one includes martial arts specialists such as Bruce Lee, Jet Li and Jackie Chan, or bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger, who all became superstars on celluloid too. True, some have been modestly successful like the former American Rules football player Jim Brown (The Dirty Dozen, among a few others), or the basketball legend Michael Jordan (Space Jam) but for the most, the flops far outweigh the hits.
Some sportspersons, of course, could never have outlived their field persona. It was virtually impossible for Pele to be anything other than himself, even though Escape to Victory was a reasonably successful film. O.J. Simpson, on the other hand, had his future in Hollywood stymied by the rap he faced for his wife’s murder. Simpson’s role as a valiant firefighter in The Towering Inferno held out the promise of a successful career, but he will now only be remembered for the memorable chase over half of America on live news television in which he was a real, not reel life fugitive.
A quick list (not exhaustive) of highly acclaimed international sportspersons who made little headway in films will show not just the high rate of failure, but also the huge attraction that cinema seems to hold for them: Henry Cooper, Ken Norton, Mike Tyson, Buster Crabbe, Carl Lewis, Vera Ralston, Althea Gibson, John McEnroe, Anna Kournikova, Lance Armstrong, Shaq O’Neal, Dennis Rodman, Rick Fox, etc.
Golden goal: Footballer Pele in a still from the 1981 film ’Escape to Victory’. AFP
If anything, the story in Bollywood is even more dismal, and that’s also because sports has never been strong on the Indian consciousness. No Indian sportsperson who has ventured into the celluloid world has left behind a memorable body of work. Sunil Gavaskar and Harbhajan Singh—among a few others—have made guest appearances as themselves, perhaps to test the waters, and withdrawn quickly from the action, as it were. Some braver ones went a step further, but to no great avail.
Salim Durrani, a great all-rounder, made his debut in B.R. Ishara’s Charitra in the 1970s (along with Parveen Babi) amid much fanfare, but found his histrionic skills severely limited compared to his ability to hit sixes at will. A squeaky voice on a 6ft-plus frame made the screen persona look even more incongruous, and Durrani’s film career faded away as quickly as a first-ball duck.
Sandeep Patil’s macho looks and baritone voice made him a better suited candidate, but alas in Kabhi Ajnabi The (in which his colleague wicket-keeper Syed Kirmani played villain) failed to impress the score keepers of the box office. In the words of one reviewer, Patil was as “expressive as a doorknob”. The film was subsequently derisively referred to as Kabhi Cricketer The and spelt finis to Patil’s celluloid and cricketing ambitions.
The only Indian sportsman to have made it good in cinema was Dara Singh, in a string of B-grade movies which highlighted his wrestling skills that had earned him the epithet of “Rustam-e-Zaman” (champion of the world). Several of these films earned their makers a lot of dosh, but the argument still rages whether Dara Singh’s wrestling bouts outside of cinema were not play-acting itself!
This brings us back to Leander Paes and his newfound ambition. Can he break the hoodoo? A stint with Anupam Kher will obviously have helped, and some reading of Stanislavski might put further “method” into his skills. It remains to be seen, of course, whether he is a better fit for mushy romance or high action, the two most successful genres in Indian cinema. But one of my Twitter followers had another concern when I posted some info about Lee’s desire to be an actor on the account.
“Can he speak Hindi?” was the question, which I think is superfluous. Ask Katrina Kaif.
Ayaz Memon is a Mumbai-based writer and commentator.
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