Sports and Bollywood share a very strange relationship. It’s the kind that beats all logic. A billion people arouse the patriot within them by stopping in their tracks to see 11 men play cricket or hockey but somewhere this still isn’t enough to get a filmmaker going. India has enjoyed many a highs in sports but the fact that some of its best-loved sporting stories are the ones imagined like Lagaan or Iqbal couldn’t be more ironic. For the longest time parents brought up kids on the premise of kheloge koodoge banoge kharaab, padhoge likhoge banoge nawaab and that thought is so ingrained that anything connected to sports is not to be taken seriously. Hindi cinema’s frolic with sports, especially cricket goes back a long way. The frisky Rafi number She Ne Khela He Se Cricket Match from Love Marriage (1959) is one of the first instances of where the fun of sports cricket invaded Bollywood. In Golmaal (1979) a sports obsessed Ram Prasad’s (Amol Palekar) lie to watch an India-Pakistan hockey match spirals his life into an uncontrollable mess. Later in the 1980s there was All Rounder (1984) that tried to re-imagine the classic Hindi films hero as a hotshot cricketer but its meandering plot that went from being a cricket tale to a love story to family vendetta didn’t really help. Always one to imagine the headlines as the log lines of his films, Dev Anand made Awaal Number (1990) that had an LTTE like outfit threatening a cricket series and then Sau Crore (1991) that was allegedly inspired by badminton star Syed Modi’s murder.
Besides these oddities, the 1980s also had two fantastic films that had sports as a very important peg in the scheme of things but weren’t merely ‘sports’ film. Prakash Jha’s Hip, Hip, Hurray (1984) is about a football coach who incurs the wrath of the most popular kid in school and rose above the usual trappings of the genre by using sports as a metaphor for the bigger things in life, which anyone who has ever played a sport knows is true. Anil Ganguly’s Saaheb (1985) featured Anil Kapoor in the titular role as a talented goalkeeper who isn’t good enough to make it to the big league. The film dealt with the trials of Saaheb’s lower middle-class family in Calcutta, and everything that would constitute a family drama but kept the passion that separated a sportsperson from everyone at the forefront.
By tradition popular Hindi cinema has been escapist and somewhere the manufactured realism of Bollywood might not accept sportsmen and women as regular people. Characters like Major Dhyanchand or Milkha Singh are perhaps too real for Hindi cinema as they would not look ‘real’ enough if they were to break into a song and dance routine. One big reason behind this step-brotherly treatment towards films with sports as a theme could be the box-office failure of Mansoor Khan’s Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander (1992). This coming of age quasi remake of Breaking Away (1979) now enjoys a cult following but its commercial failure popularised the myth that sports films don’t do well in India. The last half decent Bollywood offering on sports was Lahore (2010) whose kickboxing premise was a deviation from then usual cricket or hockey.
In any other part of the world the fierce on-field rivalry between India-Pakistan in cricket or hockey would enthuse filmmakers to no end. Wouldn’t India’s 1983 World Cup triumph or Pakistan’s 1992 victory, the pace battery of Imran Khan-Sarfraz Nawaz or the batting resilience of Sunil Gavaskar-Gundappa Vishwanath make great films? How come images like Imran Khan calling Krish Srikanth to bat again after he was declared out to an LBW appeal not make for an arresting visual or a plot point?
If nothing fictional then such sporting stories do demand a good documentary. It took a long time for the likes of Lagaan, and Chak De India! to emerge from an industry that loves reality as long as it’s a little unreal. Things might just get better for sports in film thanks to Paan Singh Tomar (2012). There is much more to the film than the parallel sports tracks and what it achieves is remarkable. Paan Singh Tomar manages to challenge the very logic that operates Bollywood – it craves realism enough to inspire a story but kills any semblance of reality once it starts telling the tale. It might just be half time for Bollywood and sports.
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