In terms of cinematic appeal, filmmaker Soumendra Padhi felt this story was a gold mine: A four-year-old child, sold off by his mother to a hawker for 800, living in the slums of Salia Sahi in Bhubaneswar, running marathons—including a well-publicized, non-competitive 65km non-stop run in seven hours—and trained by a judo coach with no experience in long-distance running.

And this was not even fiction.

“At that time, he was the most Googled child in the world," says Padhi about Budhia Singh, who became the subject of much admiration and debate in 2005 after his record-setting effort. That run from Puri to Bhubaneswar made it to the Limca Book of Records, got the attention of the Child Welfare Committee with allegations of exploitation and sparked a national debate.

Padhi started working on this script in 2009, but research led him into the snake pit of the Internet, a mesh of confusion, with multiple versions of the truth, stories of harassment, denials, betrayals and murder. The film that came out of all this, almost five years later, Duronto—based on the early life of Budhia Singh—won Padhi a National Award for best children’s film this year.

Duronto is as much a sports biopic as it is a drama, but increasingly, filmmakers in India are looking for sporting tales to tell and finding drama in them. The similarity with Hollywood probably is coincidental, which also has recently upped its repertoire of sports films, making the past few years, with 2015-16 in particular, a prolific time for this genre.

Three English-language films have already come out by April, Race on athlete Jesse Owens, Eddie the Eagle on skier Michael Edwards (though not released yet in India) and The Program on cyclist Lance Armstrong. To release later this year is Pele: Birth of a Legend on the Brazilian footballer.

Indian filmmakers have lined up Azhar, on former cricket captain Mohammad Azharuddin, M.S. Dhoni: the Untold Story on the current Indian cricket (limited overs) captain, and Dangal, on wrestler Mahavir Singh Phogat.

Announcements have already been made of films on badminton player Saina Nehwal, hockey magician Dhyan Chand, the women’s basketball team from Chhattisgarh and the Mohun Bagan football team of 1911. Most of these are in various stages of development, and some may not come through, but that does not dilute the intention.

Add to that a docu-drama on Sachin Tendulkar, called Sachin: A Billion Dreams, and a feature film called Sultan starring Salman Khan, in which he plays a wrestler (since Khan can only play himself, this is not based on any real person) and the circle is complete.

These films follow the ones that have already been made over the past four years, eponymous movies on athlete-turned-dacoit Paan Singh Tomar, boxer Mary Kom and athlete Milkha Singh (Bhaag Milkha Bhaag). Duronto has not yet been commercially released, but has done the run of film festivals.

The connection between sports and Hindi cinema can be traced to wrestler-turned-actor Dara Singh and the early 1960s. Several sportspeople, including cricketers Sandeep Patil, Syed Kirmani and Sunil Gavaskar, nursed and killed filmy ambitions after making embarrassing debuts, but, till recently, sports and movies have been separate means of entertainment in India. Now, cinema is using stories about sportspeople and there are reasons why.

Movies on sportspeople allow filmmakers to combine three essential ingredients: drama, euphoria and action or heroism, besides cashing in on the fame and fan following of the subject.

Most stories are quintessentially of the underdog conquering all odds (Owens, Milkha, Mary Kom), of magical talent and part-myth (Pele, Dhyan Chand), controversies (Armstrong, Azharuddin), conflicts/rivalries (Rush, made in 2013, about two Formula One racers) or just the bizarre (Edwards, Tomar). Some may not easily fall into a category, like Nehwal or Dhoni, but would have immediate appeal to a fan base. With a little bit of cinematic spice, the character can be elevated to heroic heights.

What’s the appeal for filmmakers and audiences?

“Sports films are made because already the character is known, and so it helps in marketing the film," says Tigmanshu Dhulia, who directed Paan Singh Tomar (2012), while explaining why sportspeople are appealing to filmmakers. “Also, sport lends itself to thrilling moments. Pick a character, show him going through vigorous physical training, add jingoism and you have a sports film."

The advantage, some say, also lies in not having to create a story from scratch in an industry plagued by a lack of originality. The story presents itself and the promotions ride on the back of curiosity about the life of a person already well known.

Precedence presents a happy picture. Box-office collections for both Mary Kom and Bhaag Milkha Bhaag worldwide were a respectable 100 crore plus each, according to the website Bollywood Hungama. Both won a bunch of awards, created a buzz and did much more for the actors and filmmakers than for the sportspeople themselves, leading to a spurt of other such stories. Priyanka Chopra, who played Mary Kom, and Farhan Akhtar, who was Milkha Singh in the film, were rewarded with gasps of admiration for their physical effort and trophies for representing their characters’ emotional graphs.

Cinema audiences like larger-than-life heroes. It’s the reason Salman Khan and Rajinikanth are so popular, because they pull off superhuman feats in their films. Sportspeople are heroes as well, for their ability to perform physical feats we cannot. So, when their story transitions to the screen, the heroism is easy to replicate.

Owens, a black man, ran in the 1936 Olympics in a Germany ruled by Adolf Hitler and won four gold medals. He had to battle prejudice and poverty to get to his goals. Milkha Singh, who lost his family during Partition, finished fourth in the 1960 Olympics, still the best finish in an Olympic track-and-field event for an Indian—a milestone he shares with P.T. Usha.

These heroic traits can be easily exaggerated on celluloid, though sometimes to comical effect. In the multilingual south Indian film Ashwini, a biopic on sprinter Ashwini Nachappa in which she plays herself, rivers of blood spill out of her sabotaged sneakers as she runs despite the discomfort, a squidgy sequence high
on melodrama and, of course, heroism.

Over the course of the past year or so, actor Sushant Singh Rajput was seen at several cricket matches involving India. The reason: Rajput plays Dhoni in the film and this was part of his research. With limited avenues to showcase their acting talent, actors are only too happy to be part of a film that requires them to put in the labour in a gym and earn publicity from it.

Reports and photographs abound in newspapers about how Chopra trained as a boxer for Mary Kom, how Aamir Khan slapped on the kilos to play wrestler Phogat, how Rajput grew his hair to portray a young Dhoni and how Emraan Hashmi’s wrists would hurt while “playing 150 balls a day" to be able to flick like Azhar.

There is also an argument about changing tastes and the “evolving" of the audience, in order to understand why people would choose to see films that are not the Bollywood romance-revenge staple. A few years ago, it perhaps would not have been possible to make a film about a gay professor (Aligarh), as its director Hansal Mehta told The New York Times, or of a lesbian love story involving a physically challenged girl (Margarita, With A Straw).

“Our stories used to be monochromatic," says Ajit Andhare, chief operating officer of Viacom18 Motion Pictures. “What Bollywood is waking up to is there is life beyond man-woman stories. We have dispelled standard templates. Films represent its different conversations as society is maturing. There are more kinds of storytelling and the biopic happens to be one of the spaces."

“People are selecting genres, getting more patient, looking for something out of the box, irrespective of who the cast is. They are evolving," Neeraj Pandey, director of M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story, said recently at an event.

Andhare, whose studio produced both Bhaag Milkha Bhaag and Mary Kom, crisply summarizes why there are so many sports biopics now. He says it starts with the demonstrated success of these two films, one after the other. If you could do that with athletics and boxing, other sporting backgrounds become possible too, he says.

“Secondly, it allows you to be experimental and economical in casting. You are trying to build a character, rather than a pure hero. The third is the economics, with marketing alliances you can do. The big one in India is cricket and you have two examples with Dhoni and Azhar. In any industry, if a trend has been started, you will always see some replication," he says.

Andhare’s point is validated when Rajput, who plays Dhoni, appears these days in a television commercial during the Indian Premier League (IPL). He happens to be passing by a cricket game, when he gets invited to play. Needless to add, he scores runs and effects a stumping as well. Though M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story is scheduled to release only in September, the association between Rajput and cricket is already being established through a product.

In another marketing move, the Indian Olympic Association last week announced Salman Khan as the goodwill ambassador of the Indian contingent to the Rio Olympics. Though some athletes criticized the appointment, because they felt an Olympian would have been better suited for the role, the appointment was also timed with the fact that Khan’s Sultan, about a wrestler, is scheduled to release before the Olympics.

Finally, it’s the feel-good factor to sports that make films about them appealing. Old-time film followers will tell you that movies with sad endings do not do well. Euphoria is integral to a sports film, which gets audiences involved in an emotional level.

“I was in school when I saw Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar," says Rajat Arora, who wrote the screenplay for Azhar. “The end was so euphoric, it was amazing. Lagaan was like watching an India-Pakistan match in a bar."

In 2001, when Lagaan—a sport-related film, though not a biopic—was released, audiences in cinemas cheered in the end when a last-ball boundary gave the Indian villagers, underdogs in this case, a win over their colonial challengers.

In Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, the film concludes not with Singh’s fourth-place finish at the Olympics but with the athlete defeating Pakistani rival Abdul Khaliq, in the kind of jingoism Dhulia refers to.

Years ago, at a small cinema in Bengaluru where Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar played to a packed hall of school/college-going fans, people sat on the edge of their seats urging Sanjay (Aamir Khan) to change gears, like his on-screen brother wanted him to, which would give him the proverbial victory over the conniving rival.

When choosing a subject, filmmakers use different parameters to make their decisions. Pandey said Dhoni’s story “came" to him and Arora believes Azhar’s story would lure any writer, while Padhi was curious about Budhia, a statemate from Odisha.

“Paan Singh led two different lives due to personal circumstances, which I found interesting. He was a sportsman and a rebel; he was part of the system as a soldier in the Indian Army and then went against the system; he ran for the country and then ran against it; he got rewards for the country and then he had a reward on his head. It’s the best scenario one can explore," says Dhulia.

“He lived his life king-size, with so much glory and so many controversies," says Arora of Azharuddin. “These characters are too dramatic to ignore, that so much can happen with someone." Arora has also previously written The Dirty Picture, a film inspired by actress Silk Smitha.

Most filmmakers say there is a part of the story, of the athlete’s life, that others would not know about. This becomes pertinent when the character, at first glance, does not have an interesting enough life story graph to hold attention for two hours.

Besides being hugely popular and part legendary for his ability to conjure victories for India, Dhoni’s life, or what we know of it, is unremarkable. He worked with the Indian Railways—as several upcoming athletes do—and was a small-town boy from Ranchi aiming to make it big. But Pandey found the challenge in bringing out facts that are not known to the public, which he is not willing to share before the release of the film.

When Padhi, enticed by the attention young Budhia Singh got, set out to find his story, all he got were contradictions. There were several versions to each story, with all the stakeholders—family, coach, doctors—giving him their versions. Then he had to find the right boy to play the role, and find balance in his storytelling.

“It’s not just about the marathon, there’s political intrigue, controversy. People make statements through marathons. This child was controversial," says Padhi. “We cannot make the film fictitious. What he does, is the story."

Budhia, now 14, lives at a sports hostel in Bhubaneswar, reminiscing about old times and resenting being told to do sprints instead of long distances, as reported by The Indian Express on 24 April.

Dhulia’s situation was exactly the opposite of Padhi’s: he had no material on Paan Singh Tomar to start with, nothing in the newspapers, nothing on the Internet—just a two-page article in a magazine dated March 1983. “We went to his village, met his relatives and got some basic information and then one piece of information led to another," says Dhulia. “It was like an investigation. (Information led us to) close relatives to servicemen to former coaches, Milkha Singh as well, and also surrendered dacoits and police officers who were involved in the raid when Paan Singh was shot dead."

But with authorized works, like Azhar and Dhoni, it’s easier to verify facts because living subjects can endorse the film. Or embellish them, if necessary. Azharuddin told the Mumbai Mirror after an event recently that he wanted people to know about the tough times he had endured, through the film.

Arora says he has met Azharuddin a dozen times and he has been on board from the beginning. “Each time he has been open, honest and candid. His down-to-earth attitude and say-it-as-you-see-it approach has helped me tremendously in the scriptwriting process," he says.

Both Mary Kom and Milkha Singh have supported the films based on them. M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story is co-produced by Inspired Entertainment Pvt. Ltd, the film production arm of Rhiti Group, which also manages the Indian limited-overs captain.

Not all films, though, end in euphoria—not all are heroes. The Program on Armstrong, for example, focuses on the hero-turned-cheat’s experimentation with performance-enhancing substances, in what is widely regarded as the “most sophisticated doping programme in sport".

Arora speaks about authenticity, to create a world that’s real, so that people could wonder: did this really happen? He talks about balancing authenticity and entertainment without being judgmental. “One man’s hero is another’s villain," he said later in a text message, when asked about Azharuddin, whose athleticism at cover-point delighted fans in the mid-1980s and ’90s, and whose involvement in match-fixing erased him from public consciousness in the 2000s.

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