Hindi Features

When Bollywood Sports Dramas Gave Voice To Soft Nationalism

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If the post-Independence era explored films that were made to boost the morale of a broken nation, the 80s saw the working middle class hero rebelling against a corrupt system. Then came a long line of films aimed at the Indian diaspora – some largely propagated the concept of soft nationalism, a recurrent theme often used in sports dramas and biopics. 

Bollywood did not warm up to the sports genre for a long time. It was only after India’s Prudential Cup triumph in 1983 that India became a cricket-obsessed nation. The year after saw Mohan Kumar’s All Rounder which failed to make an impact at the box office. Next came sports dramas like Hip Hip Hurray (1984), directed by Prakash Jha and screenplay by Gulzar and the Anil Kapoor-starrer Saheb (1985) – these films were mostly coming-of-age stories. It was Dev Anand’s Awwal Number in 1990 which changed the tone and had an undercurrent of nationalism.

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The film narrated the rivalry between Sunny (Aamir Khan) and Ronny (Aditya Pancholi), set against the backdrop of a terrorist threat. Although the film was heavy on the subject, it failed to capture the essence of the game.

The Tide Of Change

One of the main reasons why sports films did not get much attention was because the sport became a tool for the protagonist to further a social, personal or political cause, but the game itself was never the focus.

In 2001, the concept of sports drama came of age, thanks to Ashutosh Gowariker’s Lagaan. The Aamir Khan film had all the right ingredients to make a Bollywood blockbuster – there was enough cricket, the underdogs triumphed at the end and the colonials beat the British at their own game. The film also drove home the message that while the village is divided by caste and class, it’s the game of cricket that unifies every one. It took massive liberties while dealing with historical facts, but that didn’t stop anyone from enjoying the period drama. The film was also nominated for the Academy Awards in the Best Foreign Film category.

True Patriots

After a lull came Shah Rukh Khan’s Chak De! India in 2007. Not only did the film exhibit true sports nationalism but it also gave a much-needed shift from the cricket fever, turning the focus on women’s hockey. The timing for the film’s release was also perfect, it came after cricket fans were left disappointed when India failed to qualify for the Super Eight at the 2007 World Cup.

The story of Chak De! India was inspired by Mir Ranjan Negi, a player of the Indian hockey team who was accused of treachery and taking money from the Pakistanis to give away goals during India’s match against Pakistan at the 1982 Asian Games final. Negi restored his reputation by coaching the men’s team for the Asian Games gold in 1998 and the women’s team at the Manchester Commonwealth Games in 2002. Chak De was a story of redemption, patriotism and women empowerment – a formula that is bound to strike gold at the box office.

Shah Rukh Khan was seen in a never-seen-before avatar. His speech, ‘sattar minute hai tumhaare paas…’ is one of most repeated dialogues of Hindi cinema.

The success of Lagaan, also led to a surge in cricket related films, Iqbal (2005), Stumped (2003), Say Salaam India (2007), Victory (2009), Hattrick (2007), Jannat (2008) Dil Bole Hadipaa! (2009), Victory (2009), Patiala House (2011), to mention a few.

To portray nationalistic pride, an India versus Pakistan match became a staple in these sports dramas. Decisive moments revolve around matches with Pakistan. Not unlike real life, in Bollywood, beating Pakistan is the sign of ultimate victory. Remember the scene in the MS Dhoni biopic, when Dhoni calls his father from Pakistan, where the team has just won a match? It was a turning point in their relationship when his father realises for the first time that his son is destined to reach great heights.

Farhan Akhtar’s Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (2013) goes back to the Partition days, when athlete Milkha Singh’s family gets murdered in Pakistan. But as the mark of a true sportsman, he overcomes his fears, travels to Pakistan to run a race (and also wins it), upon Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s request.

While Priyanka Chopra’s Mary Kom focused on the protagonist’s personal story and struggles, instances like Mary screaming at the sports federation that she is an “Indian at heart”and the film ending with the National Anthem as Mary wins her fourth world boxing champion title, are proof that it eventually pans towards patriotism.

In the 2016 film Dangal – a biopic on wrestler Mahavir Singh Phogat and his two daughters Geeta and Babita – there’s an emotional scene when Geeta (played by Fatima Sana Shaikh) wins the gold medal with the National Anthem playing in the background. The film released around the time when the Supreme Court had made it mandatory for the National Anthem to be played before film screenings. Because of the ruling, many viewers were left confused – whether to stand or remain seated when the scene played out. It also led to several altercations between the viewers. In fact, it was because of this scene, Aamir Khan refused to release the film in Pakistan which had demanded two cuts – the National Anthem scene and a scene where the Indian flag was shown.

Nationalism was also a common theme in Salman Khan’s Sultan and the Mahendra Singh Dhoni biopic titled MS Dhoni: The Untold Story which had Sushant Singh Rajput in the lead role.

In the recent film Soorma, a biopic on former Indian hockey team captain Sandeep Singh, the protagonist is repeatedly asked one question – who does he play for? For the love of his love?

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For his family? Or for his country? Here too, the climax involved an India-Pakistan match.

Adding to the list is Akshay Kumar‘s upcoming sports film Gold. Like in his previous films – Holiday: A Soldier Is Never Off Duty, Ab Tumhare Hawale Watan Sathiyo, and Rustom, Akshay wears nationalism up his sleeve in this one. Akshay Kumar plays hockey player Tapan Das who wants to win the Olympics gold for an Independent India and not for the British India.

The film is not a biopic but a fictional story. With dialogues like “Our team will defeat the British in London and avenge 200 years of subjugation”, Gold is sure to play to the nationalistic sentiments of the country. The film releases on August 15.

Other upcoming sports biopics:

  • Saina Nehwal
  • Abhinav Bindra
  • Gopichand
  • Dhyan Chand
  • P.V. Sindhu
  • P.T.Usha
  • Mithila Raj
  • Ranveer Singh is all set to portray former Indian national cricket team captain Kapil Dev in the movie titled ‘83.

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