Bollywood and the cinema of sports, sportsmen and sportswomen


    Sports basically are a way of life that demands a certain attitude, high moral values, focus and strict discipline to make it in a given sport. Sports are a concept and an ideology not limited to performance in the field or within the four walls of a hall such as chess. Do these carry over in films dealing with sports through entirely fictionalised narratives or through real-life representations on celluloid? These are questions this story will seek to find answers to, or, perhaps, discover some questions that may keep hanging in the air.

    Taking stock of notable Indian films dealing in sports down the years, the output is disappointing.  This writer could count only nine Hindi films between 1984 and 2005. The list begins with Raj N. Sippy’s Boxer (1984) starring Mithun Chakravarty. Prakash Jha made a film the same year called Hip Hip Hurray starring the relatively unknown Raj Kiran as a sports instructor. Saaheb (1985), directed by Anil Ganguly with Anil Kapoor in the title role, had sports as a sub-plot to the main story, a family melodrama. After a long hiatus, it was left to the talented Mansoor Ali Khan to direct the delightfully entertaining Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar (1992.) Vikram Bhatt’s Ghulam (1998), Gul Bahar Singh’s Goal (1999) produced by the Children’s Film Society and Ashutosh Gowarikar’s Lagaan (2001) complete the list before Iqbal.

    This article will keep away from Sultan because of its extremely patriarchal handling of the theme where the girl who falls in love with the wrestler is somehow forced to give up the sport. The same goes for films that did not do well at the box office and were critical failures such as fictionalised biographies of Mohammed Azharuddin and M.S. Dhoni  A sports film demands a completely different approach to the entire technique and aesthetics of filmmaking that would involve an equal commitment from the director, the scriptwriter, the cinematographer, the sound designer and the editor plus the one working on the production design and on the costumes. How many filmmakers are this committed?

    Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar (1992) is about a cycling race that goes beyond the race to extend itself to an exploration of class discrimination between students of two different schools, one a humble, Indian one and one a prestigious English-medium one. It also is a model lesson on how negative competition can create havoc in the lives of dedicated competitors but also bring about a positive metamorphosis in the life and philosophy of the protagonist Sanju (Amir Khan) who changes from a happy-go-lucky, irreverent, never-care-less young schoolboy to a responsible young son who is not only repentant about his past behaviour but is also determined to win the race which his brother was originally supposed to participate in.

    The training sessions Sanju undergoes are handled extremely well. Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar was such a big hit that it became not only a cult film but also a trendsetter that triggered the Telugu Thammdu ((1999), the Tamil Badri (2001), the Kannada Yuvaraja (2001) and the Bengali Champion (2003.)  Mansoor Ali Khan who directed his debut film said that it was loosely based on Breaking Away (1979) produced and directed by Peter Yates and went on to win many awards.

    Lagaan cannot be defined just as a sports film. It basically is a powerful patriotic statement and creates the history that, though fiction, comes across with conviction and massive audience acceptance. Lagaan shows cricket as a matter of life-or-death for the simple villagers of Champaran, a fictional place set in the in the Victorian era when the British were in full control of India. The villagers had never even heard the word “cricket” in their lives and objects like the bat, the ball, the wickets and the pitch were as if from a different world. The final cricket march between the British officers and the poor peasants is played for their lives. Champaran is a drought-stricken village without rains for three monsoons that failed to produce crops so the villagers could not pay the taxes imposed by the British. So, they are forced to accept the wager by the British officers that if they win in a game of cricket against the British players, their taxes will be waived. Lagaan became the third Indian film to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film after Mother India (1957) and Salaam Bombay! (1988). It was one of the biggest box office hits of 2001.

    What is “Performance Cinema”?

    Performance Cinema is a term that precisely describes the kind of gruelling homework, focus and determination demanded by the actor who performs the role of a serious sportsperson especially when the actor is called upon to play a sportsperson who actually existed or exists. According to Stacey Stocky who teachers at the University of Denver, Performance cinema combines both cinema and performance in dynamic ways, defining a media of creative work, while also instigating the development of new, defined genres. Henry Warwick says that a performance film “sits between traditional, passive, cinematic experience and the dynamic experience of, say, a live music performance.” Roland Barthes in Camera Lucia (1980), writes, “The power of authentication exceeds the power of representation.” He wrote this with reference to the photographic picture but lends itself beautifully to a different derivation of ‘performance cinema’ where the film illustrates perfection in an art/sport that is not related to cinematic forms like acting or technology, etc.

    Like standard cinema, performance cinema requires a “moving picture”. Like live music, it calls for an audience. The audience, just by the act of viewing, participates in the construction of the event as a meaningful experience. We have some, though not many examples in Indian cinema. Chak De India is the first film that comes to mind which extends the parameters of ‘performance cinema’ by taking in hockey at a national level with young girls chosen from across the country for the ‘National Women’s Hockey’ team in the film taking it to a different plane. Maharaj Krishan Kaushik, who was with the team when it won the Commonwealth Games’ gold in 2002 joined forces to train the girls with Mir Ranjan Negi on whose real story the film was based.

    Screenwriter Jaideep Sahni requested Negi to coach the actors portraying the hockey team. Negi says, “I trained the girls for six months. We would wake up at four in the morning, travelling from Kandivali, a Mumbai suburb to Churchgate. We would retire around eleven in the night. It was tiring. But we were on a mission. They could not run, could not even hold hockey sticks. The girls have worked very hard. I salute them.” Some of the actors like Chitrashi, Sandia, and Raynia were cast because they were actual hockey players. ReelSports, under the direction of Sports Action Director Rob Miller, also worked with Negi to train the girls and Shahrukh Khan for the film. Of working with Khan, Negi recalled that everything was planned, “including the penalty stroke that SRK missed. That shot alone took us nearly 20 hours as I was keen that it should be very realistic. I took the help of a lot of my former team-mates. It was easy working with SRK. He is unbelievably modest and was willing to do as many re-takes as we wanted.”

    A sports film that is fiction but extremely detailed in terms of technique, and training and other paraphernalia demanded by a sports film including the choice of the main cast and the actual framing and choreographing of the sports scenes is Saala Khadoos. Madhavan, an intense actor who has played reasonably ‘cool’ roles in Bollywood and in Southern films, produced and acted in Saala Khadoos, a film centred on boxing which was a very big hit in the southern version but not that big a hit in the Hindi belt. The film featured two female boxers who knew boxing.

    About his role in the film of winning boxer who was thrown out of the ring and had to redeem himself by training a champion, says, “I went through extensive training in amateur boxing under Hollywood experts who specialise in training actors. This is the most physically-challenging role I have ever done. I spent close to two years in the gym, trying to look the part though we shot only for 44 days. I went through intense body conditioning regime in Los Angeles in 2013 because Sudha Kongara, the director, had read the script to me two years before and I jumped at it. But the role needed rigorous preparation. When I got into the boxing ring for the first time, I did not last for even a minute. This made me change my perspective about boxers and I now respect them. Shilpa Shetty, a close friend, helped me gain and lose weight effectively during the period, doubling up as my dietician and fitness coach.”

    Olympian Milkha Singh is one of India’s most iconic athletes. Bhaag Milkha Bhaag. is based on his life which has all cinematic elements of drama, irony, tragedy, struggles and triumphs. Farhan Akhtar, who played the title role of Milkha Singh and won the National Award for Best Actor for his performance in the film, transformed his look completely and turned himself into a man with lean body muscle. He went through hardcore training for 18 months before shooting began to acquire the original body Milkha Singh had as a young man. “But that had only 40% of what we were working at. The remaining 60% came from proper sleep and a clean diet because I was repeatedly told that our muscles need time to recover and need at least eight hours of sleep,” says Farhaan. He went into hard training, cardio exercises and a strict schedule. “Naturally, some of this tends to spill over into your real life even after the film is over because the main goal was to increase the endurance,” he sums up.

    Paan Singh Tomar was an Indian Army soldier who was also an exceptional athlete who ruled the steeplechase event (a 3000-meter obstacle race that includes a water jump) at the National Games seven years in a row and his record remained unbeaten for ten years. In the 1960s and 1970s, he represented India at international competitions. But even after so many triumphs, he could manage even to make a meagre living and was forced to become a dacoit. Paan Singh Tomar, the film, was first premiered in 2010 at British Film Institute London Film Festival.

    “I heard about Tomar and his extraordinary achievements first from Tigmangshu Dhulia. Two months before the shoot, I took physical training from a Delhi-based national-level coach on Steeplechase. It was difficult but enjoyable. I also undertook lessons on voice modulation and pronunciation as I had to speak in local dialect. It was a different experience because you need to be convincing in all aspects to resemble the person that you are essaying. The character required me to be physically fit. Hence after the shoot, I would exercise. Chambal is a beautiful place, so I would go for jogs in the evenings,” says Irrfan Khan. His hard work bagged him the Best Actor Award at the National Awards. He adds that the film has changed his way of looking at life, discipline and commitment.

    Mary Kom is an Indian boxer. Till the time the film was released, she was five-time World Amateur Boxing champion, and the only woman boxer to have won a medal in each one of the six world championships. She is the only Indian woman boxer to have qualified for the 2012 Summer Olympics, competing in the flyweight (51 kg) category and winning the bronze medal. She has also been ranked as No. 4 AIBA World Women’s Ranking Flyweight category. After an eight-year break, she won a silver medal at the 2008 Asian Women’s Boxing Championship in India and a fourth successive gold medal at the AIBA Women’s World Boxing Championship in China, followed by a gold medal at the 2009 Asian Indoor Games in Vietnam. Priyanka Chopra was chosen to play Mary Kom in the film.

    Priyanka Chopra has repeatedly said “Mary Kom has been one of the hardest films of my career. I had to really sweat it out in the gym to achieve the perfect physique to portray the boxer on screen. I had to transform myself from a glamorous actress to a hard-hitting sportsperson. It took me two years of determination taught by my mentor Mary Kom herself.”  Priyanka suffered an injury while filming a boxing scene with an actor from the North-East. She fell on the floor because of the impact. But as she got the shot spot on, director Omung Kumar decided to retain it. “The cut mark one sees on the screen under her eye is real though it was touched up with a bit of make-up to make it seem more real,” says the director.

    The best example of Performance Cinema in sports is Dangal. The quality, amount, time and space Amir Khan gave himself and his girls to train in wrestling, a lesser known field in Bollywood cinema, has to be heard to be believed. When reigning superstar Aamir Khan had to play the part of Haryanvi wrestler Mahavir Singh Phogat, who coached his daughters Geeta Phogat (Commonwealth Games gold medal winner), and Babita Kumari (2012 bronze medal winner at the World Wrestling Championship).  Khan’s preparation went far beyond putting on weight and shedding it as per the demands of the script.

    This marked the entry of 40-year-old Kripa Shankar Bishnoi, an Indore-based wrestler, coach of the Indian women’s wrestling team, and winner of the prestigious Arjuna award (conferred for excellence in sports). Bishnoi also won a number of medals for India at international competitions, including the Commonwealth Games. (Seema Sinha, (December 12, 2016.)

    Bishnoi, who trained Aamir for a year-and-a-half, said, “I was worried that he, as an overweight 50-year-old, could possibly hurt himself. But, he proved that zidd (stubbornness) is what superstars are made of. While training, he would perform a stunt twice or thrice, but when in front of the camera, he did not need a single retake. He would get breathless while tying the lace of the wrestling shoes because of his bulging stomach. At that time he wasn’t fit to be a wrestler but he was quite flexible and supple. His muscles were hidden behind the fat. Gradually I felt that he had the strength and he was good with coordinating and using the technique well while wrestling, his catching power and mastering the art and skill was really good. He was a very obedient student as well. He would keep trying the techniques until he got it right and once he had achieved it, he would stop. Later, his wrestling scenes after weight loss, during his character’s youth, were quite different.” On his advice, Amir quit smoking completely during his work in the film. “Aamir trained for more than six months before the shoot began and continued training during the shooting. His schedule was exactly like that of a wrestler’s. If I didn’t like a particular move or he was not satisfied with a shot, he would shoot again till the time it looked perfect,” said Bishnoi.

    Bishnoi also trained Fatima Sana Sheikh and Sanya Malhotra, who plays Geeta Phogat and Babita Phogat. Dangal is also a path-breaking film for its strong message to encourage women to take up wrestling assumed to be a male sport. Bishnoi was readying women wrestlers for the Rio Olympics when Fatima and Sanya were sent to train under him.. Bishnoi made them follow almost the same drill as the Phogat sisters. “It was important for them to acquire the explosive strength, learn wrestling tricks and adapt to an accurate mind and body coordination, important for wrestlers inside a ring,” he added. “It took Fatima six months to develop the strength required for a wrestler, whereas Sanya, a ballet dancer, was very flexible with a supple body.”

    Rahul Bhatt, Mahesh Bhatt’s son, one of the finest physical trainers in Mumbai, trained Amir for his bulky look when the character is 45 and later when Amir had to look 25. For both these segments, Rahul planned a strict and focused exercise regime because “Amir is a very demanding pupil,” says Rahul. Aamir’s days would usually commence at 4.30 am, with an exercise routine comprising compound movement and cardiovascular activities. This is Performance Cinema at its best.

    Summing Up

    We can now look forward to Soorma, being directed by Shaad Ali. It is a bio-feature based on the life of international hockey player Sandeep Singh being played by Diljit Dosanjh who is also co-producing the film. Sandeep Singh, an Arjuna Award winner was paralyzed and used a wheelchair for two years after an accidental gunshot injured him in 2006. He got back on is feet to make a comeback to International hockey in 2008. India won the 2009 Sultan Azlan Shah Hockey Cup under his captaincy and went on to qualify for the 2012 Olympics. Diljeet Dosanjh is being supported by Angad Bedi, son of cricketer Milkha Singh and Taapsi Pannu both actors having made a strong impression in Pink last year. The film is slated to release in July this year.


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    Shoma Chatterji
    Shoma A. Chatterji is a senior journalist, film scholar and author based in India. She specialises in Indian Cinema, has won the National Award for Best Writing in Cinema twice. She has done her P.Hd and post-doctoral research on Indian cinema. She has authored 24 books of which more than half are on cinema.


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