x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

India's growing film industry focusing on sports

With Paan Singh Tomar out in cinemas, we look at the growing number of Indian sports films being made.

Paan Singh Tomar is based on the true story of the athlete of the same name.
Paan Singh Tomar is based on the true story of the athlete of the same name.

"No one asked for me when I was a sports star but now that I am a rebel, everyone wants to hear my story," says Irrfan Khan.

The Indian actor utters the line in the starring role in Paan Singh Tomar, a biopic about an Indian national steeplechase champion-turned-dacoit (bandit) that was released last month and is still going strong in cinemas. At that point in the story, Tomar was at the height of his notoriety as a rifle-wielding criminal. Embittered and betrayed by the country's neglect of his achievements, he hit out at a reporter during an interview just days before his death.

Although Tomar was shot dead in a police operation in 1981, the story of his life took 31 years to bring to the screen. It was his golden period, when Tomar leapt over hurdles in races as well as social and economic barriers, which resonates most with Indian audiences today.

A similarly inspirational sports story about an extraordinary Indian sprinter from modest means, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, directed by Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, began production last month and is scheduled for release later this year.

Until now, much of India's visual media content has been dominated by melodrama, conventional storytelling and anachronistic plots. But the film industry appears to be in the early stages of a genre that may be well-worn elsewhere, but new to India: sports movies. In an Olympic year, and for a country that is increasingly taking note of improved performances in sports tournaments after decades of witnessing those that were below average or abysmally poor, films about athletes and their journeys are hitting the sweet spot.

"India has mostly followed the mythical form of storytelling, where archetypal heroes have stood for certain values and morals," says Santosh Desai, the chief executive of Futurebrands India and a well-known social commentator. "That was the classical paradigm. But rescuing individual stories [of sports stars] from the usual film format is refreshing, though I feel collective sports movies will have more resonance going ahead."

He points to the exception of Lagaan, "a classic sports movie" about cricket that was released in 2001 and is included in Time magazine's list of the top 25 sports movies. And while team sports such as cricket and hockey have been at the background of movies such as Hattrick, Iqbal and Dhan Dhana Dhan Goal, the game has rarely dominated the plot.

But then again, apart from cricket achievements, Indian audiences have had no real reason to follow any other sport. Over the past two years, however, that has been steadily changing, due to a record-breaking medal tally at the 2010 Commonwealth Games, India's first Formula 1 in Delhi, the cricket and the hockey world cups, and a steady stream of good news from boxing, kabaddi and shooting tournaments.

Meanwhile, Mary Kom, the five-time world boxing champion from the north-eastern Indian state of Manipur, is holding India's Olympic hopes in London when women's boxing makes its debut at this year's event.

While cinema might not be able to change realities on the ground in India, which lacks basic sport-building infrastructure and support for budding athletes, the possibility of more films on the topic could prove inspiring to the masses.

"By and large, sports movies are about underdogs fighting against odds," says Desai.

Tigmanshu Dhulia, the director of Paan Singh Tomar, plays down the role cinema can play in boosting sports in India.

"Films can stretch that moment of glory that make up the grandeur of sports. They can popularise a game for a short while, like Chak De did. But in the end, they can only make people more aware of the realities," says Dhulia.

Still, he is exploring a new movie about Bhiwani, a small town in Haryana that has produced many of India's boxers. The film would reflect the reality - and impediment to success at elite levels - that most aspiring athletes in India still view sport as a leg up to a better life; a way to land a government job in the railway or at a bank.

"A sporting career is yet to become an acceptable career option in India and needs all the help it can get," says Dhulia. "Just like a tiger is an indication of how healthy a habitat is, sports is an indication of how healthy a generation is."


Follow Arts & Life on Twitter to keep up with all the latest news and events @LifeNationalUAE