Matchless moments on screen

Sports might have received stepmotherly treatment from filmmakers but the audience has responded enthusiastically whenever the director has struck the right chord as in Lagaan and Iqbal, writes Shoma A. Chatterji

The cricket match in Lagaan was the climax of the rebellion against the oppressive British regime
The cricket match in Lagaan was the climax of the rebellion against the oppressive British regime

Bend it Like Beckham depicts the struggle of a second-generation Indian to make it as a soccer player in the UK
Bend it Like Beckham depicts the struggle of a second-generation Indian to make it as a soccer player in the UK

THE thumping box office and critical success of Nagesh Kukunoor’s Iqbal (2005) produced by Subhash Ghai ought to mark a turning point in the visibility and importance of sports in Indian cinema.

Unfortunately, the entire stress for the success of Iqbal has been placed on the boy Iqbal’s hearing disability where Iqbal’s socially challenged position somehow gets marginalised. To be fair to Kukunoor, this in no way takes away from the film’s strikingly unusual approach, style and treatment.

If one were to take stock of notable Indian films dealing in sports down the years, the output is disappointing, to say the least. This writer could count only nine Hindi films between 1984 and 2005. The list begins with Raj 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. Understandably, very little writing has been attempted on Indian cinema and its involvement with sports and sports-related themes.

On the other hand, in the USA, Randy Williams has recently authored Sports Cinema - 100 Movies: The Best of Hollywood’s Athletic Heroes, Losers, Myths, and Misfits of the Silver Screen. The book, published by Limelight Editions, is an in-depth companion guide celebrating movies centered on sports-oriented stories, characters, events, or backdrops, complete with more than 200 black-and-white film stills.

Beginning with Million Dollar Legs (1932), Williams counts down his top 100 film picks covering more than seven decades. It is based upon hundreds of hours of film watching and his expertise as a lifelong sports fan and sports writer for national and international publications.

No discussion on cinema and sports can be complete without reference to Escape to Victory, the greatest football film ever made. Directed by John Huston in 1981 it is set in a Prisoner of War camp during World War II. Michael Caine stars as Captain John Colby, who leads Sylvester Stallone and an all-star cast of footballers including Pele, Bobby Moore, Osvaldo Ardiles, and Mike Summerbee, who agree to play a football match against some local German troops, but after the Nazi propaganda machine takes over they end up in occupied Paris playing the German National team.

At the very end of filming there was an actors strike, unfortunately there was still one very important scene to film where the players get off the train at Paris. After the strike finished, the production company had to fly everyone back over to finish this final scene at great cost.

Sensitively made Iqbal was well received
Sensitively made Iqbal was well received

Gurinder Chhadda’s delightful entertainer Bend it Like Beckham (2003) is perhaps the only film depicting the struggles of a second-generation British-Indian girl’s aim to become a great soccer player in the country she thinks is her own. It was a great and inspirational film about acceptance and being who you are. Back to home soil, Boxer explored a father-son relationship centered on boxing as a confrontational team sport. Hip Hip Hurray unfolded the story of a sports instructor’s journey into his children’s hearts, who channels the raw energy of his boys in the right direction towards victory against a million odds. The film is set against the backdrop of Ranchi where, when this electronics engineer discovers that there is no sports culture in a local school, he sacrifices his promising career in favour to building up a strong football team. Prakash Jha successfully portrays the struggles a dreamer like this young man goes through while making changes in the existing system. The film also points out the general attitude of the Indian parents and teachers towards sports, how the young students are discouraged to take to sports seriously. The situation has not changed to this day as India’s continued lack of performance at the Olympics and other international sporting events stands testimony to.

Boxer deals with obstacles to a career in boxing from within the family against the backdrop of a boxer who takes to alcohol to drown his failure in.

Among films dealing with the ‘killer instinct’ in sport, this writer feels Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar can stake a claim to being the number one and perhaps till date, the only film on competitive sports. It is a brilliant film that, under the guise of class conflict between students of two schools, one a middle-class school and the other an elitist institution, explores how such conflict can also kindle the trigger to achieve perfection not only in a given sport – cycling here – but also as a human being.

In Ghulam, the boxing ring forms the focus of how the mafia uses a militant sport for its own devious ends. It is the mafia politics that dictates the rules of the boxing ring, how the sport can make or break the life of an innocent young man, how money is made and how men can easily get killed for a win or a loss come out very well in the hands of Vikram Bhatt in this thriller genre.

But the cake for one of the best sports film handling raw and amateurish children as the main stars and the determination of a frustrated player-turned-coach must go to Gul Bahar Singh’s Goal.

Lagaan on the other hand, is a brilliant fiction film set against the backdrop of the 19th century where the foreground is filled with how the game of cricket is turned into a life-and-death game by a racist and oppressive British officer out to impoverish an already impoverished village burdened by a land tax they cannot pay.

Will Iqbal set a trend? One hopes it does. One hopes that the natural sporting talents of actors like Rahul Bose (soccer), John Abraham (two-wheeler racing), Akshay Kumar (karate), Milind Soman (aquatics) and Ajay Devgun (stunts) are rightly utilised within celluloid to bring out their best in acting and in the sport of their choice. — TWF