Friday, November 18, 2016

MS Dhoni: The Untold Story: Review

The downside of calling your film M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story is that it’s easy for someone to point out after it’s done that a lot of the story is still untold. Let me be that person. This is a film for acolytes—people who want to see some kind of Superdhoni on their screens instead of the inscrutable iceberg who also happened to be one of the most significant cricketers of his generation.

Right from the start, this is a fairy tale disguised as an underdog story.This is not to say that the film isn’t faithful to the broader details of Dhoni’s life and career. It’s the treatment: the way things fall into place the way they rarely do in real life. When, as a young football enthusiast, he’s first handed wicket-keeping gloves, he drops the first few catches, then latches on to everything after that. Batting in the nets for the first time, he hits the first ball back over the bowler’s head. Throughout the film, there are only a few instances of Dhoni being dismissed; getting out, apparently, is for mortals.

Working with co-writer Dilip Jha, writer-director Neeraj Pandey uses the intermission to divide the Dhoni saga (from childhood till the 2011 World Cup) into two halves that could have been titled “persistence” and “payoff”. We’re shown how Dhoni’s hitting makes him a legend in his school, then in his hometown of Ranchi; how he misses his chance to play for the U-19 team; how he takes a job as a ticket collector in the hope of representing Railways in the Ranji Trophy. Played by Sushant Singh Rajput, the Dhoni we see on screen is always quietly confident, with the beatific smile of someone who knows things will work out. It’s as if the makers are afraid the audience might think less of the character if he betrayed a few nerves.

As Dhoni’s career seems to grind to a halt—like the trains he’s supposed to keep tabs on—the film stalls as well. But intermissions (and their effect on screenplays) are strange things. When the film resumes, Dhoni is quickly elevated to the India A team, then to the national side. Suddenly, we’re not only watching cricket, but watching Indians watch cricket, which is just as entertaining. We see his sceptical father, his supportive mother and sister, friends who’ve supported him since his schooldays, his first coach, yell at the TV, advise him on how to play, blame everyone but him for his dismissal. For once, instead of being told how special Dhoni is, we see his greatness reflected in their reactions.

Apart from a brilliantly cast Herry Tangiri as a young Yuvraj Singh, the film avoids having actors play the Indian team of the time. Instead, it inserts Rajput as Dhoni into actual match footage. It’s the film’s one big gamble. On the one hand, the makers no longer have to run the risk of looking silly while recreating moments that cricket fans know by heart. Yet, this approach also results in a lack of immediacy. We never feel the heat of the moment, never hear the crowd’s chants as Dhoni would have heard them. We’re removed from the action—twice removed, in fact.

The film runs through the major signposts in Dhoni’s career, but we never get a sense of how victory and defeat affected the man or altered his game or personality. The 2007 World Cup loss, after which his effigy was burnt outside his home in Ranchi, is widely regarded as a turning point in his life. Here, it just comes and goes—a little detail in the inexorable rise of Dhoni. Same with the 2007 World Twenty20 win, the origin of the Dhoni-as-leader legend. Other Bollywood sports films such as Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, Mary Kom, even Sultan, have been able to link events in their protagonists’ lives to their athletic performance. Yet, even that doesn’t happen here. We see the tragic end of one of his relationships. Did this make him a more guarded person? The film isn’t saying.

Anyone expecting M.S. Dhoni to be even mildly controversial probably doesn’t know that one of the producers is Arun Pandey, the cricketer’s friend and business partner. The closest the film comes to ruffling feathers is when Dhoni, speaking as captain to the selection committee, asks for three senior players be dropped from the ODI team. However, the players aren’t identified, which renders the conversation slightly ridiculous (people around me started muttering “Sehwag?”, “Laxman?”). From the start, it was always likely that the film would end up a hagiography. Yet, even a glorified account of Dhoni’s career might have found ways to say insightful, non-contentious things about cricket in this country. There are a couple of scattered moments that’ll appeal to fans—when he hits a match-winning six in a school game, Dhoni does the same bat twirl that followed his sealing of the 2011 World Cup—but, considering this is a three-hour film, there should have been more.

For someone who doesn’t look particularly like Dhoni, Rajput does a remarkable job breaking down and reassembling the visible aspects of the man: that quick, confident walk, the clipped nature of his speech in English, those strange strokes. If Rajput can’t give us an idea of what Dhoni is like beneath the surface, it’s probably because the film is unwilling to delve deeper. A series of talented bit players come and go, enlivening scenes that would have otherwise fallen flat: Rajesh Sharma as Dhoni’s first coach; Kumud Mishra as an early benefactor; Brijendra Kala and Mukesh Bhatt as comic relief commentators.

M.S. Dhoni is a blandly professional piece of work. This might be enough for fans of the man, but for anyone who’d hoped that the first ever film about a still-active Indian cricketer might have traces of insight or daring, this will likely be a disappointment. The film ends with the World Cup win and Rajput’s face, followed by the director credit—a moment greeted with indifference by the audience I saw the film with. Only when the real Dhoni appeared on screen for a few seconds was some applause heard. The message seemed clear: Dhoni still strikes a chord, M.S. Dhoni not so much.

This review appeared in Mint.

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