[This WordPress tells me is my 1000th post]
M S Dhoni. The Untold story.
So what would this “untold story” be I wondered, as I sank into my seat at AMC Barrington, in a surprisingly packed auditorium on a Sunday afternoon.
Was I expecting untold stories about Rhiti sports, cricket enthusiasts, selection room shenanigans, bags of cement and Deepika Padukone?
Of course not. A biopic of a sportsman who is not just alive but also playing the game isn’t going to lift the hood and show us the gunk in the engine.Just not going to happen. That too in India, where slapping of defamation and sentiment-hurting lawsuits is a cottage industry. And to be honest, cinematic biographies of heroes, even the most Oscars-hogging of them and I am talking Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi, rarely rise above being hagiographies, maybe not to the level of MSG Messenger of God, but pretty close.
So no. I was not expecting dark revelations. Not even something lightly gray like why he wouldn’t trust Ambati Rayadu with the strike.
As far as I could tell, “the untold story” was a tag line. Like Sultan of Delhi: Ascension.
But as the closing credits rolled, to a thunderous standing applause the like of which I have never seen in an US theater, I could say I was pleasantly surprised.
There was an untold story there. Actually two, if you think about it.
It takes a village to raise a child, they say, and in this case it takes a small town to make a legend. Very cleverly, Neeraj Pande focuses not just on Dhoni but also his surroundings, the motley group of friends who believe in his ability, failed cricketers, his parents, his first coach, his boss at Indian Railways, his fellow ticket-checkers, and Ranchi and Kharagpur. This is where the film is most successful—in its authentic portrayal of Tier 2 city-life, a world of government quarters, half-dried small-town stadiums, busy platforms, dingy staff accommodation, and small middle-class ambitions. The spotlight wisely is kept away from cricket, we don’t even see Dhoni becoming the captain, and that’s what prevents Dhoni from becoming a yawn-inducing litany of scorecards, or the cinematic version of Boria Majumdar’s Bible.
Instead the drama, and it is great drama, lies in the struggle within, of an extra-ordinary man trying to break free off the tyranny of low middle-class expectations. In one of the film’s most poignant scenes, Dhoni sits hunched over on a bench at Kharagpur, wearing his ticket-checker’s uniform. He is facing a departmental inquiry for chronic absenteeism. People he played with like Yuvraj and Kaif are already bona fide international stars, and he is still spending his life shuttling between two trains and collecting money from the ticketless while practicing cricket on the side. The noose of irrelevant anonymity, a lifetime of playing inconsequential Ranji trophy games in empty stadiums, is tightening around his neck, and he knows it. Then a train stops in front of him. He looks up and he hears his name chanted, in unison, by a million voices. He hesitates, looks around, runs out into the pouring rain, and steps into a compartment, and as the train chugs out, he looks back at the life and the job and the future that he just left for good.
This is an extraordinarily powerful cinematic sequence, even though I am sure it is totally made up.
But then again, if you just wanted fact, there is Statsguru.
Or, and I can do this all day, Boria Majumdar as a biographer.
The film isn’t this excellent throughout. It flags, in the romantic sequences mostly, though one does understand that it is difficult to sell a film without some of that, and, at several places, it walks the line of the ridiculous where Sushant Singh Rajput’s face is superposed, giving the film an EA Cricket 2007 look and feel. What saves Dhoni: The Untold Story throughout is Neeraj Pandey’s ability to bring it back, just when it seems like the asking rate is going a bit too high.
Which brings me to the other untold story.
At one stage, one of Dhoni’s earliest believers, a proprietor of a local sport’s good shop, is asked “Who is Dhoni to you? Why do you keep speaking for him?” to which he says, “I played cricket but I never had the talent. Through him, I can be what I can never be.”
That, to me, is the film capturing perfectly the crux of our relationship with our sports idols.
This is why we are so invested in the success of people who are strangers, and this is why we feel so let down by their failures. We live through them, without realizing it. They breathe our fantasies, of walking into a stadium of thousands and winning the World Cup, fantasies which we can never realize, because we are not good enough, because we cannot take the risk, because we know, deep inside, we won’t be able to get there.
But some people do. They do get there.
These are special people.
Their dreams do not vanish when they wake. For it is their very dreams that keep them awake.
People like MS Dhoni.
Which is why when in the end, he sends Nuwan Kulasekara into the stands, his gaze following the trajectory of the ball, in a sequence that goosebumps even the most jaded of us, no matter how many times we have seen it before, it becomes a moment of fulfillment, our eyes moisten, and we stand up as one and applaud, because for one fleeting second, we are there, without quite understanding it, the imaginary hero of our own little untold story.
Yes. The film does live up to its billing.
That it does.