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It's not just about cricket

Call it the Olympics effect, if you prefer. This year, and the next, Bollywood is set to unveil several sports-based films that explore the lives and times of sportsmen. And it doesn’t stop there — filmmakers are keen to go beyond cricket and tell stories about the societal repercussions of relationships sportsmen, connected to games other than cricket, have with their games.

Filmmaker Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, who made Rang De Basanti (2006) and Delhi 6 (2009), will release his next film, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag next year. It is based on the life of the renowned athlete from the 1960s, Milkha Singh, famously known as the ‘Flying Sikh’. “I feel very strongly about the real role models in the society and Milkha Singh is one of them,” says Mehra.


In the upcoming film Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, Farhan Akhtar plays the role of the famous Indian runner, Milkha Singh, also known as the ‘Flying Sikh’

Director Sanjay Leela Bhansali, too, has announced his film based on the boxer Olympics bronze medalist, MC Mary Kom. “Mary Kom’s story is very inspiring. It touched my heart and I decided that the script deserved to be made into a film. I’m proud I am doing this movie.”

There’s more. Prominent shooter and Arjuna Award winner, Moraad A Khan, is producing Khwaabb, which captures the journey of young talent in their dream of winning for India. The film will be released later this year. The film, according to its director, Zaid Ali Khan, talks about “aspects of Indian sports that have never been covered on Indian celluloid.”


Next year, filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali will release his film based on the life and struggles of Indian pugilist and Olympics bronze medal winner, MC Mary Kom (right)

Director Onir is producing Coach Kameena (to be released in 2013), which is about the aspirations of a 16 year-old boy who is a good runner but all his family and school want is for him to make it to the merit list. “In my film, the coach teaches the boy to stand up for his dreams,” says Onir.

Ever since Lagaan (2001) proved how cricket and cinema could be a potent combination, there have been sporadic releases on the great Indian obsession — cricket and cricketers. Iqbal (2005), Victory (2009), Dil Bole Hadippa (2009) and Patiala House (2011) saw mixed reactions.

However, filmmakers did turn to non-cricket based themes — the 2007 super-hit Chak De! India concentrated on hockey while the John Abraham starrer Dhan Dhan Dhana Dhan Goal (2007) revolved around football. This year, UTV released Paan Singh Tomar, a film about a long-distance runner who becomes a dacoit, and Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Ferrari Ki Sawaari delved into the lives of a father who wants to fulfill his son’s cricketing dreams.


A still from the film Khwaabb

Why sports films score high
Audiences obviously enjoy the adrenaline rush which comes with a nail-biting match on celluloid and filmmakers understand that viewers will watch, with rapt attention, the drama and layers that unfold in the retelling of a sportsperson’s struggles.

“Filmmakers sense that audiences are greatly interested in sports-based films. There is a growing appetite for such films now and the awareness about different sports is on the rise, too. Sports reflect the aspirations of so many people. Moreover, I think sports-based films always have a certain energy,” says Onir.

The protagonist in Onir’s directorial debut, My Brother Nikhil, was a swimmer (played by Sanjay Suri). The director points out, “Basketball was a part of script in my film, Bas Ek Pal, too. I like sports. When you are shooting a sports competition, the energy levels rise significantly and it is exciting to bring that all on screen. I decided to produce Coach Kameena because it had a different level of energy, a progressive attitude and a gripping story. In India, there was a time when only cricket was given prominence, but now, our country realises the importance of doing well at the Olympics, too.”

Mehra agrees. “My heart beats for the sports of my country. I always wanted India to do well in the Olympics. My film Bhaag Milkha Bhaag is my way of paying homage to the sports of the country.”

Producer Moraad says, “It is important to bring awareness among the masses about the Olympic sports in India, and Khwaabb is a step in that direction. Everyone rejoices in winning, but it is the journey towards winning a medal which needs support.” Zaid , an alumnus of the Central Film School, London feels that sports is not just a means of entertainment on screen. “We have tried to portray a different aspect in this film. It is a realistic and slightly dark portrayal of what the Indian sporting scenario is like. We have tackled numerous issues — whether it is the problem of funds or of coaches. An athlete has to constantly struggle, and we have tried to bring that on screen. If, through my film, I can inspire an athlete to continue working hard to get a medal for the country, then I will have succeeded.”

Real-life inspirations
It is best done when reel life emulated real life, feel filmmakers. Sports personalities with interesting life stories make for great cinema, feels Mehra. It is, he adds, all about having an intriguing role model and a cultural icon. “I am a sportsman myself and have always looked up to Milkha Singh. I was born and brought up in Delhi, and visited the National Stadium regularly. I had heard a lot of stories about Milkha Singh.” Mehra hopes to translate his own fascination on screen, and share his vision with his many viewers.

Bhansali, too, seems intrigued by the subject of his next production. “I see Mary Kom and a strange smile flickers on my face,” he says. “Her face reflects a ronak (light) which cannot be attributed to her success alone — it is due to her inner strength. Her smile is so endearing that, within minutes of meeting her, I couldn’t help but be in deep in conversation with her. She and her husband are humble and simple people who do their best to make you feel good. We Indians are proud of Mary — in spite of having a difficult task of raising two children, she managed to win an Olympics bronze for the country.”

Bhansali says he was inspired to make this film on Mary because, to him, it is a wonderful story of her life — despite the lack of infrastructure and teachers in boxing academies. “It is very difficult for me to read a script at one go but, in her case, once I started, I couldn’t put it down. I am looking forward to this film. Hindi cinema rarely makes biopics, especially on those who are still alive so I am very excited that I am part of this rare experiment which will see the making of a biopic on an amazing personality like Mary Kom.”

From actors to sportsmen
For actors, playing a sportsperson affords a delicious challenge. “Every actress in Mumbai is dying to take up the role of Mary Kom,” claims Bhansali.  Actors are also willing to go the extra mile to transform themselves — physically and mentally — to play sportsmen convincingly on screen. For instance, Khwaabb’s lead pair, Navdeep Singh and Simer Motiani, underwent three months of intense training to get in shape and film the sports sequences.

Farhan Akhtar, too, stuck to an arduous workout regime to resemble the well-built Milkha Singh. The actor reportedly met Milkha’s trainer and spent months training to look right for the role. “I felt Farhan is apt for the character because I have seen his earlier work. It’s a film about the human spirit. Milkha has set such a great example — people can achieve every success in life through sheer hard work. Farhan was the right person to portray all of that, says Mehra.”

Ripple effect
Don’t, however, go thinking that Bollywood is taking the responsibility to encourage sports in the country, warns Onir. “In Bollywood, there is nothing like responsibility,” he avers. “It is about the money, though it is great if a film — serious or fun — conveys a progressive sensibility.” However, the director is confident the ripple effect caused by the spurt in the production of sports-based films will have far-reaching consequences. “It won’t happen overnight, but sports other than cricket will gain some importance through cinematic portrayals. Consequently, more people will participate in these sports. And we will find more visibility on an international platform.” 

Batting for other sports
>> Filmmaker Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra will release his next film, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag next year. It is based on the life of the renowned athlete from the 1960s, Milkha Singh, famously known as the ‘Flying Sikh’
>> Director Sanjay Leela Bhansali has announced his film based on the boxer and Olympics bronze medalist, MC Mary Kom
>> Prominent shooter and Arjuna Award winner, Moraad A Khan, is producing Khwaabb, which captures the journey of young talent in their dream of winning for India. The film is slated for release later this year
>> Director Onir is producing Coach Kameena, which will be released next year. It is about the aspirations of a 16 year-old boy who is a good runner but all his family and school want is for him to make it to the merit list 

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