10 October 2016

A Saleable Stardom

My Mirror column yesterday:

A sanitised film on MS Dhoni packages our yearning for heroes into a marketable sense of self-worth.

In 2012, a British magazine called SportsPro ranked Mahendra Singh Dhoni No 16 in their list of the world’s 50 most marketable athletes based on age, home market, charisma, crossover appeal and value for money (boxer Mary Kom at No 38 is the only other Indian in the list). In April 2013, the cover of Business Today magazine portrayed the Indian cricket captain as the Hindu god Vishnu. A blue-skinned Dhoni gazed out at us beatifically, his multiple arms bearing no iconic conch, discus, mace or lotus, but instead a selection of the many brands he helps advertise, from Lays chips to Boost energy drink. “God of Big Deals”, read the headline.

That controversial cover got Dhoni legally embroiled on the charge of 'hurting religious sentiments'. Criminal proceedings in the case were finally quashed by the Supreme Court only in September 2016, a month ago.

All through these years, however, Dhoni has reigned supreme in the realm of endorsements--and not without reason. There is no Indian story more saleable than that of a lower middle class boy becoming an enormously successful sportsman, and apparently achieving this with sheer talent and grit. Dhoni may not have quite started in rags, but he has certainly risen to riches. And Neeraj Pandey's recent film, MS Dhoni: The Untold Story, is clearly keen to ride that wave.

Several arguments have unfolded over whether it is or isn't a biopic -- does it truthfully depict Dhoni's life, goes the question. Those who believe that Pandey whitewashes his subject have cited several erasures: the film's total ignoring of Dhoni's (apparently estranged) elder brother Narendra Singh Dhoni, who has been with the BJP and is now an SP politician in Ranchi; the portrayal of him as someone who has only ever had two romantic entanglements (one girl sadly dies, the second he marries), and the removal of all things unseemly or colourful in the cricketer's public life, including the Vishnu avatar case.

There is no doubt that the film forms part of the cricketer's tightly-controlled crafting of a public self-image. This image is public in the way that all of us who are on social media will recognise – i.e., it deliberately includes those glimpses of the 'private' that we think will add to our appeal, and leaves out anything that might be perceived as unsavoury. In the case of the particular form of myth-making that is Bollywood, certain well-known real-life details are elided to create a more heroic hero and a more romantic romance, eg. the fact that Dhoni and his wife Sakshi actually knew each other from childhood is deleted from the film's telling of their relationship.

What the film is interested in doing is to paint the glorious arc of Dhoni's journey as a potential India story. The time and space are crucial to that narrative: the fact that the film’s star is born in the dim sky of Ranchi, in the ordinarily dysfunctional wasteland of what was then Bihar – and ends up (or rather, is still in orbit) in the extraordinarily glitzy new constellation that is post-T20 cricket. As the cricketer makes the slow move from the local sports shop owner to a gazillion nationwide advertising endorsements, from playing school matches whose existence is conveyed to the town population by a small boy on a bicycle to World Cup matches that receive practically nonstop media coverage, this is a liberalisation story if ever there was one.

The film gives us glimpses of much-needed specificity here: the Bihar cricket association head (Kumud Mishra, superb) making a wryly accurate crack about the reason that no young Biharis are being 'discovered' is that the state's adults care more about politics than cricket, or the terrible state of the Ranchi-Dumdum highway becoming a stumbling block for Dhoni's career. And yet the constituents of his supposedly inspiring ascent -- plush hotel rooms and lion-filled safari vacations -- are dull as ditchwater.

Meanwhile, the spaces of the past, which ought to have been more characterful – such as the railway quarters that Dhoni the ticket-checker shared with three other railway employees in Kharagpur – seem flat, at best sincerely documented. The camera jerks uneasily around the box-like bedroom, the tiny kitchen, the Indian-style toilet, as one imagines Dhoni might do if he were taken there today: not quite sure how to inhabit such a space any more. A large chunk of the film unfolds in railway stations, government offices and small-town government colonies, but the sense of atmosphere seemed sorely missing.

Other than Sushant Singh Rajput's quietly impressive turn as Dhoni, the thing that kept the film watchable for me was Dilip Jha's dialogue, from the faintly-Bengali-accented speech of young Mahi's school coach Banerjee Sir to the nicely-done Bihari inflections of most of Dhoni's friends and family. (I particularly loved the fishseller who resists Mrs. Banerjee's bargaining with a plaintively accurate “Kaise posayega Boudi?”)

This is a disappointing film in several respects, and yet there is no doubt that most Indians who enter the cinema will find themselves deeply moved. As we watch Dhoni's old friends and dogged supporters, teachers, even past rivals take a personal pride in his performance on the world stage, we realise how many people's efforts can go into the making of one. In a country so hungry for heroes, letting us feel that we helped create them is a sure-shot recipe for success.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 9th Oct 2016.

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