MS Dhoni: Behind the box office success of the biopic

Early on in MS Dhoni: The Untold Story – a biopic of India’s cricket captain, which opened on September 30 and has now accumulated box office returns in the same blistering manner as its eponymous hero collects milestones – there is a brief, insightful glimpse into the Indian cricket establishment, rooted in the big cities, and its former disdain for the provincial.

The young Dhoni, an unkempt figure with a shoulder-length mane, who comes from Ranchi – once a backwater town in the eastern state of Jharkhand – is rejected at a selection trial. In the process, he is subject to a condescending remark: “God knows from which benighted parts [of the country] they keep coming.”

In 1995, when the Indian author Pankaj Mishra published his now-acclaimed book Butter Chicken in Ludhiana, an account of his travels in small-town India, its landscape was changing in ways that could scarcely be foreseen.

Mishra’s book brought to life the alienation and dark undercurrents that accompanied India’s entry into the global economy.

As Mishra travelled in the mid-1990s, a vigorous, even vulgar, materialism seemed to have been unleashed. This encounter with modernity had simultaneously unsettled small-town Indian life, creating a profound psychological disturbance, setting off a chain of material desires without the means yet to obtain them. 

Yet the onset of free market economics had another consequence. It liberated small towns from their torpor and isolation, unleashing a ferment of aspiration and ambition that would transform India.

Over the past two decades, some of the country’s best entrepreneurs, business leaders and film stars have emerged from outside the traditional urban centres. So have its cricketers. 

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Satellite television: Bringing games into homes across India

Until the 1990s, India’s cricket stars came almost entirely from the country’s major cities.

Urban centres such as Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai possessed more than a century of cricketing tradition, and had developed coaching structures and high-level local competitions in which promising young players could develop and thrive.

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All of India’s cricket stars at the turn of the century came from these traditional incubators of talent: the peerless Sachin Tendulkar from Mumbai, the then-captain Sourav Ganguly from Kolkata, VVS Laxman from Hyderabad, and Rahul Dravid and Anil Kumble from Bangalore.

Dhoni’s Ranchi had never even made a dent on this cricketing topography.

Yet another consequence of free market economics, one which would forever alter the landscape of Indian cricket, was already in play: satellite television was now bringing the game into homes across the land.

No longer was knowledge of the game the sole preserve of aspiring cricketers in the cities who got to see their idols first-hand. Young cricketers in the hinterland could absorb and learn the intricacies of the game – and they did. What these young cricketers lacked in conventional training and coaching, they made up for in energy and drive.

Dhoni was among the first, and most enduring, of these self-made cricketers. In 2015, the writer Mukul Kesavan described Dhoni’s success “as the consolidation of the provincial’s progress in Indian cricket”. 

“There’s something ‘desi’ about Dhoni,” Kesavan wrote, referring to the great Hindu epic Mahabharata to explain Dhoni’s improbable rise. “Even before he became captain, his legend was built on Indian archetypes. He was Eklavya, a boy from the backwoods of Jharkhand, who taught himself his craft, worlds removed from metropolitan Dronacharyas, like Achrekar, who helped urban prodigies like Tendulkar fulfil their talent.” 

Kesavan’s exposition provides useful context for the selector’s disdain, in the movie, for Dhoni’s origins: cricketers who played at the highest level simply did not come from Ranchi, or Jharkhand. 

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The origin story of a modern-day diety

MS Dhoni: The Untold Story is an authorised, hagiographic portrait.

Seen in a purely cinematic light, it is a largely mediocre feat of filmmaking, often descending into kitsch.

The second half of its 190 minutes – Bollywood movies usually include an intermission – is little more than an extended highlights reel traversing Dhoni’s dizzying passage to the apex of Indian cricket: the film ends with Dhoni’s match-winning innings in the 2011 World Cup final.

Poster for the film MS Dhoni: The Untold Story

The movie’s best, most revealing, moments come in the origin story of this modern-day Indian deity.

Among the central motifs of Dhoni’s struggle to make it as a cricketer is the conflict with his father, whose emphasis on a life of sustenance and stability finds itself at odds with his son’s expanding horizons and ambition.

In a nascent, but critical, phase of his career, when Dhoni is appointed as a ticket-collector in the Indian Railways – the largest employer of aspiring sportsmen, offering them steady employment along with opportunities to play and further their ambition – his father is jubilant. A job in the public sector is still seen by large segments of the middle class as a route to prosperity and a cue for settling down. It is clear the son does not share that sentiment. Soon after, in the film, when Dhoni ditches the job in all-out pursuit of his desire to play for the national team, communication between father and son breaks down.

In many ways, their conflict appears at a transitional point in Indian society, when the opportunities offered by the open economy are beginning to rival and even supersede the privileges of state employment. Dhoni’s father cannot comprehend what could be bigger and more satisfying than a steady government job, while the son is eager and restless to embrace the limitless promise of the free market. The thought of a stodgy, dull, slow-paced existence fills him with dread.

Thematically, one is reminded here of Yasujiro Ozu’s films of postwar Japan, where the mores and expectations of one generation are so different from the succeeding one, that the gulf is so vast it is almost unbridgeable.

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Behind the box-office success

Part of the purpose of a biopic such as this is revealing the inner workings of its subject, exploring the motivation and psychology that drive and propel the hero’s very public achievements. In this, MS Dhoni: The Untold Story only partly succeeds, as the film increasingly veers towards a cinematic compendium of the Indian captain’s greatest hits.

The more interesting proposition lies less in the movie itself, but in its success.

MS Dhoni: The Untold Story has become the year’s second-highest grossing Bollywood film, taking in more than 2bn Indian rupees ($30m).

The astounding success of a fitful film lacking a major star, begs the question: what accounts for Dhoni’s hold on the Indian imagination? Azhar, a biopic about Mohammed Azharuddin – India’s cricket captain through most of the 1990s – released in May this year, was both a critical and commercial disaster.  

The most striking aspect about Dhoni as a modern Indian icon is how remarkably free of baggage he appears. The complexes, insecurities and prejudices of his context seem to have passed him by.

“Part of Dhoni’s adaptation was in realising that small-town grittiness needs to be preserved but small-town insecurities need to be confronted and defeated,” wrote Aditya Mani Jha, in the Hindu Business Line, a national daily, commenting on how the film astutely captured the trajectory of Dhoni’s evolution: he remained himself, and of his origins, without being imprisoned by them.

Few Indian icons have made the transition with such apparent ease.

Dhoni, both in life and on the screen, seems as comfortable in the milieu of posh hotels and in the world of the West, as he did in the familiar surroundings of Ranchi. This quality, apart from his success on the field, has made him an apposite poster boy for an India driven by the thirst for social mobility.

Despite its technical and artistic frailties, MS Dhoni: The Untold Story seems to have intuitively grasped this essential trait about this most singular of Indian figures.

Dhoni’s confidence, his lack of diffidence towards privilege and hierarchy, speaks to an aspirational citizenry who would like to cultivate those traits within themselves.

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Source: Al Jazeera