In the closing minutes of Shah Rukh Khan’s 2007 blockbuster, Chak De India, the national women’s hockey team makes a triumphant return to India post bagging the coveted title at the world championship. As the team returns to India with gold medals hanging around their necks, one cannot help but feel a powerful sense of pride in being an Indian. Be it Lagaan’s (2001) underdog cricket team from rural India, or a female boxer from the farm regions of Manipur as played by Priyanka Chopra in Mary Kom (2014), sports films invoke a sense of national pride in audiences that is unmatched.
With a welcome reception of the early ’80s and 90’s sports films such as Hip Hip Hurray (1984), Boxer (1984), and Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander (1992), the trajectory of the portrayal of sports in Indian cinema adopted an upward trend, with actors and actresses increasingly starring in biopics portraying inspiring sportspeople on-screen and winning the hearts of India’s sports-worshipping audience. While such sports cinema covered a wide range of sports in the Indian context, ranging from cricket to hockey to wrestling, a similar diversity was absent in terms of plot imagination. A large portion of such sports films illustrates utopian narratives, an idea of the world as an idealistic paradise where hard work, fair play, and perseverance are the sole ingredients behind success in sports.
Interestingly, these very banal ingredients are the strands that contribute to the popularity of such sports films. Uncomplicated storytelling that reinforces our belief in the world as an easy place where hard work is the key to success, contributes to the triumph of sports films in India. Despite being largely inspired by real-life sports players, the dramatisation of their lives, the intense rivalry between competing nations and players, and depictions of a separated lover who tends to players’ wounds between training sessions are components that enhance the relatability and our love for these films. Everyone loves watching a wholesome success story, and sports films always deliver just that.
An important question that then must be addressed, is whether such straightforward narratives lacking complex socio-cultural or political layers can still be portrayed in the same way at a time when cinema emerges as a popular tool to express various social issues. Historically, while sports films have often adopted some complex additions to their plotlines, be it a Muslim hockey player with an anti-nationalist agenda or a female wrestler competing against prevailing social stigmas, their portrayal has been sidelined and almost simplified as a backstory. While this may be another tactic employed by the government to use cinema as a way to advance a soft image of India, it keeps intact the feel-good characteristic of sports films and ensures their commercial success.
Even while talking about the mass appeal of sports films, what unites audiences and the on-screen players is emotion. A shared bond strengthened by love for the country, a familiar struggle to reach the top, and hero-worship of Bollywood actors. This sense of hero-worship is amplified when a popular actor takes on the role of a popular player, as was the case in 2016’s M.S Dhoni: The Untold Story. Interestingly, one may even observe a blurring of lines between a film’s emotional quotient, and the accurate portrayal of actual sports playing. Films like the worldwide phenomenon Lagaan, are very little about the art of playing a refined sport like cricket as compared to the sentimental value of playing against a colonial regime, patriotism, and national unity. Whether the film traces the history of cricket in rural India, or any other factor related to cricket is irrelevant. What ensured the victory of the film, was the emotions it made the audience feel. This however leads one to contemplate whether films in this category can even be classified as sports films or just heart-rendering movies about sports figures.
While sports films highlight a sporting infrastructure easily available to the masses in every corner of the country, the reality on the ground might be a little different. For instance, while the government recently announced its plan to upgrade sports facilities in eight cities including Mizoram, Karnataka, and Kerala, a recent impact evaluation found that government sports facilities in Karnataka lack gender parity, with no separate hostels for men and women, lack of representation from minority communities, and lack of proper equipment. Thus, while some sports films highlight such structural issues, the overpowering emotion in these films may be glorifying sports in India and preventing stakeholders from evaluating the actual condition on the ground.
Therefore, balancing realism, while maintaining the feel-good aspirational significance of sports films seems to be the next step for directors and movie stars. It will be interesting to see how audiences relate to such balanced films, and whether sports movies will continue to simply be our dose of ambition, or a conversation starter about the condition of sports in India.
Jaidev Pant is a student of Psychology and Media Studies at Ashoka University. He is interested in popular culture and its intersections with politics, gender, and behavior.
Picture Credits: Mirchi Play
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