It's no secret that the state of sports in our country is far from the best. We might host games at international levels, and try to make better infrastructure under that guise, but the conditions for training and upkeep of the said infrastructure is abysmal, to say the least. Even if some of us weren't aware of this situation, I doubt any of us would be surprised to know that the last on the list of priorities for our government is sports and within that spectrum, the athletes are the least attended to. And yet, there is a tiny sliver of hope. Our cinema.
The power of the medium of moving images is undeniable. The reach is intense. And the impact is better than any speech to encourage children to take up sports as one of their mainstream activities - be it by a parent, a principal or a wanting-to-look-good politician. This power, reach, and impact are unexploited resources in getting the dismal state of sports in India to the general public's awareness. The success of some of the sports films in recent times is a testimony to the potential of this channel.
I doubt there is any Indian who won't say, Chak De! India as soon as you utter the phrase, "sports films". Sure, the name Shah Rukh Khan and some of the characters spring to memory before the syllables ho-ckey come to mind. A quote from moviefone's blog (http://blog.moviefone.com), applies here more than ever - "What is it about portraying coaches under pressure that brings out the best in actors?" That besides, Chak De! brings together everything that a sport means to a player. And of course, it is a film that makes my 9-year old "see" hockey instead of just knowing a line in social science, which goes, "India's national game is hockey."
Jokes and sarcasm apart, Chak De! indeed was and continues to be a film that shows us the charisma of a sport, any sport. The variety of people that our country has to deal with. Complex personality traits and clashes amongst them are a given in any team - sport, corporate or familial - add to that complexity the finer traits that regional, religious, cultural and sub-cultural differences brings. Chak De! showed how people from varying socio-economic backgrounds overcame these differences for the love of the game, for the love of winning and for the love of their country. An achievement only a sports team can boast of. To top it off, we are talking about women in sports here. How many sports' films across the world can claim that? A single digit number for sure.
But encouraging sports for women is a long, long way away from entering the list of things that need to change for the better in our country's attitude towards sports. Bear with me through this example. My sister-in-law was a gold medalist swimmer at the national level for 6 years in her age group then. She was thus entitled to represent India in International events like Asian Games and Commonwealth Games. Getting to that level comes with a lot of sacrifices at a personal level in any country - like sacrificing a good portion of growing up like a regular teenager; eating what you like, when you like it; and so on.
In India, it comes at an additional layer of discomfort - of having to live in municipal schools with little or no facilities to accommodate athletes; eating sub-standard, non-nutritional food - such a no-no for an athlete; sleeping on floors - for 2-3 months in a year; let us not even get into proper facilities to actually train for the sport. After spending 6-7 years like this, she quit competitive swimming because she didn't want her parents to bribe officials to allow her to represent her country, when it was her right to.
This is certainly not a one-off case. There must be hundreds of thousands of stories like these from 1.2 billion Indians. To deal with adverse conditions and move on, and do your best is a sub-sport here. And yet, we don't see any of this in our films. Not once. We saw a glimpse of it in Lagaan. Again, memorable, quirky characters see you through over 3.5 hours. The most unlikely characters, this time, some of them shunned by society come together for their village, their pride. Even though it was ultimately driven by economics, the fear of having to pay an insurmountable number in taxes, Lagaan is undoubtedly about nationalism. Much like, Dilip Kumar's Naya Daur (1957) Lagaan is, about how a sport can get you together if you have a worthy enough opponent or a common aim. But Lagaan is also about people who live in conditions that make a municipal school seem like a five-star luxury. But that was ages ago. And it is ultimately fiction.
Our sports' films today are more often than not, clichéd, rags-to-riches stories about people who come from the most difficult conditions and overcome their environment by the end. Like say in an Iqbal. If they surmount their conditions midway through the film, they are more than likely to fall prey to drugs, partying and womanizing; slip down the ladder for a bit; realize their follies; make amends and eventually reach the top again - a la Victory starring Harman Baweja. If not that, there is health or family issues like in Ta Ra Rum Pum (Saif Ali Khan as a bike-racer) or Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander (Aamir Khan as a cyclist) or Aryan (Sohail Khan as a boxer) or Patiala House (Akshay Kumar as a cricketer). And of course, there is the brand of underdog teams achieving international feats like in Lagaan, Chak De! India, De Dhana Dhan Goal (John Abraham as a footballer), Speedy Singhs (Vinay Virmani as an Ice hockey player) or even Prakash Jha's Hip Hip Hurray (Raj Kiran as football coach) from 1984. In all cases, we see sportspersons achieve glory because of their talent and through their hard work. We live vicariously through their victory.
I am not, I repeat, I am not saying such films shouldn't be made, or that they are bad films. Some of them are, but that's beside the point. In fact, the number of non-cricket films in the list is something we should be proud of. The variety of names involved in these films is irrefutably heartening. And many in the list have entertained me through and through. I don't deny that rags-to-riches stories are abundant in real life too. Munaf Patel, India's pace bowler comes from a village where roads had to be paved to accommodate media persons accessing the village to interview his family and friends, obviously AFTER his success.
If films based on such stories are successful, as many of them rightfully are, they can be instrumental in fuelling hopes and inspiring youngsters to attempt living the dream. In fact, sports films are action films which have stunts that SHOULD be tried at home. They show old-school parents the alternative to science/arts/commerce and even cricket.
Or do they? Are they glamorizing the concept of being a sportsperson by not showing the wretched state that our athletes have to put up with? Our cinema can do so much more for our sports. Our films can be our agent. Our agent to get our voices to the authorities. Agents of change. I appreciate that there are considerations other than taking up a cause when films are being made, like commerce and entertainment.
But, consider this. A very talented and hard-working athlete comes from a 'nothing' background. They work their way up wading through red-tape, politics, corruption and the works. They achieve a fair deal and then get stuck. They reach a point where they have to be dishonest, else they cannot move forward. They get frustrated and give up on the sport. After reaching an all-time low and losing all hope, they find inspiration to correct the system. They follow that dream. Note that they've had to give up the sport they love and become a wheel in the administrative cog, but that's what they think is the need of the hour.
A decent basis for a story, I think. You think, "boring!"? How about we throw in a Shah Rukh or an Aamir or even the latest thrill, Vidya Balan? It’s not like Salman Khan or Ajay Devgn aren't taking up similar causes in their films and providing such altruistic solutions in different yet similar fields - politics and administration. Banners like Yash Raj, Ashutosh Gowariker, Madhur Bhandkar do take up causes. If they can invest in a Dil Bole Hadippa (Rani Mukherjee disguising as a man to be a part of coach, Shahid Kapoor's cricket team) there surely is room for stories that are closer to reality.
There must be as many stories as there are successful athletes in this country. Stories of failure need to be told too. Don't tell me it won't sell, because Devdas is all about loss and failure of a human being. Why don't we see biographies of sportspeople made in India? Then there is the whole area of spot-fixing. Jannat starring Emraan Hashmi does broach the subject but it is a part of the whole, and doesn't look at the issue from a sportsperson's point of view, the protagonist is a bookie. There hasn't been a film from the spectator's, the fan's point of view. Bodyline, a TV series about the Australia-England rivalry is one of the best sports commentaries I've watched. It covers all aspects of the sport, from the training and selection to the egos and fan-mania. There is so much room for films based on real events.
Maybe leading sports personalities can acknowledge the power of this medium and back sports-based films instead of just facing the camera, which let us admit, they aren't too good at anyway. These films could not only encourage but also bring about change in the system. Maybe we can start with fiction and mobilize the change into reality. The fun and anxiety in the dressing room could transform into the ones enjoyed on a set. The solution on screen could be a catalyst that kindles change towards the ideal situation in our real, sporty world.