Malayalam Reviews

Captain Review: A Poignant Portrait Of An Unsung Football Star

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In its opening scene, Prajesh Sen’s Captain goes against the tide. It doesn’t show the beauty of football or the glory of victory, but invests in a hard moment of defeat. During the finals of an international tournament, the protagonist, a legendary player, dramatically shoots a penalty kick that ricochets off the goal post. He stands aghast as the gallery lets out a loud sigh. In the next scene, a flash-forward, we learn that the man killed himself by jumping in front of a moving train.

Captain isn’t just another buoyant tale of a man from humble origins who works hard to rise to the pinnacle of his game. A biopic of legendary Indian footballer VP Sathyan, it attempts to show the dark parts of his life, and explore the demons in his mind. Sathyan was totally consumed by his love for football, and he let that eccentric passion swallow him.

For Sathyan – who served as the Indian team captain for five years (1991-95) and led his team to victory in several international tournaments – football was a sacred art that defined him. He wasn’t the world’s best player, or an invincible man on the field. Even after he joined the Kerala Police (in sports quota) and started leading the police football team, he continued to play the local tournaments. Sathyan didn’t play to win, but to taste the spirit of the game. Football was his opium. A grave injury that he sustained on his leg as a child crippled his ability to play the way he wanted to, yet the man worked hard to be a champion; but when he couldn’t go ahead any further, he lost the plot.

In the film, there is a rare sheen to Sathyan’s story that reminds one of the game’s simple origins, and its influence among the working class. And, the one person who has to bear the brunt of Sathyan’s downfall is his affectionate wife, Anitha (Anu Sithara) who selflessly takes care of him even though she never gets anything she’s wanted in life. But even as the script takes the beaten track of melodrama to narrate the story, Captain is remarkable for its empathetic portrayal of depression. The film doesn’t make you ask why a person behaves a certain way, or why he doesn’t do things differently. It just shows us how complicated the human mind can be, more so when fate has added its evil twist to it.

The film’s narrative structure waves back and forth, effectively maintaining the intrigue. The makers don’t take up the impossible task of covering everything about his life. When we see Sathyan first, he is already an accomplished footballer; tidbits about his childhood are spilled one at a time. And, rather than focusing on the euphoric moments of triumph, the film watches him writhe in mental pressure and physical pain during the training sessions. In a particularly poignant instance, Sathyan, during his stint with Mohun Bagan in Kolkata, tells his wife of his fears about not being able to play. “This pain and loneliness are killing me,” he tells her like a helpless child, shedding the veneer of machismo that one usually associates with a sportsman.

The supporting characters are largely superficial. For one, coach Jafar (Ranji Panikker) is a tiring cliche. His coaching method exclusively involves delivering punch dialogues to the team members, and we never see anything really connected to football. Ask him about a game strategy, and he would say something about football being an entire country’s breath.

Even more superficial is the epilogue which lends a patriotic tone to the entire film. It is baffling because Sathyan wasn’t a person who played for a particular team or a country. His love was only for the game. The showy recital of the national anthem and a line about India’s pride render the film several times less sincere than it would have been otherwise.

The lead actors, Jayasurya and Anu Sithara, are marvelous in their well-etched out roles, although the former never lets go of that stiff look. Even in the most casual scenes, Jayasurya looks uneasy, as if he is constantly prepping himself for a penalty shot. However, the empathy with which he essays the role is moving. His portrayal of the man in his bouts of depression are lifelike and powerful. One quality that this actor possesses is the earnestness with which he engages in every film, every character. In Captain, Anu Sithara aptly complements his performance, and at times, mightily outperforms him.

What pulls the film down is the weak technical department. Production design is clumsy, never really getting the time period right, and the cinematography is glossy, not the kind that this film deserves. The visuals are bland. The lack of depth is stark in vital parts of the film. Instead of creating brilliant montages, the film compromises with weak sequences comprising slow motion shots. And worse, composer Gopi Sunder relentlessly plays the background score, never letting the drama unfold by itself. The leitmotif – theme song – an uncanny mishmash of AR Rahman’s famous Sadda Haq, and Jee Karda from Badlapur, works well in some instances. But Gopi Sunder’s refusal to stay subtle backfires. However, one must also acknowledge the fact that sometimes, the composer will have to step in and make up for the lack of dynamics in a scene which is entirely composed of poor shots.

Captain has its heart in the right place. It – albeit on a tragic tone – pays mighty tribute to a forgotten sports hero. It also asks us to pay more attention to each other, and raises pertinent questions. Why did the world that cheered Sathyan in his moments of success turn a cold shoulder to his sufferings? What happens to those heroes – and people – who are not defined by popular constructs?

*****

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