For close to two decades, I imagined I liked sports, and by that I mean cricket for the most part; tennis and football to a lesser extent. I remember one cricket match when I was six. My mother was on the terrace laying out vadams to dry in the sun. Vadams are meant to be fried and eaten, but they are delicious when partially dry and completely uncooked. (Don’t eat too many though, your stomach might ache.) On that day, I ran up three flights of stairs every time something exciting happened in the match, like when a wicket fell, or someone in the Indian team was acknowledging the crowd for having scored a fifty or hundred runs. My mother is a bonafide cricket fan, she knows all the fielding positions and she remembers the statistics. She tried to get me to like it too, and I fooled myself into thinking I was interested, that I just had poor memory. With the wisdom that age brings, I learnt that wasn’t true. I realized I enjoyed sports when I watched said sporting events with family and friends. I liked getting drawn into their excitement, their sentimental outbursts and armchair criticism, and making fun of that one cousin who never wanted India to win. I liked being with them, when for a few glorious hours, it felt like we were all on the same side.
I don’t watch sports anymore, but I do love a rousing sports story. The rise of the underdog, the unlikely hero, the strength when hit by tragedy, or as in the case of M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story, the talented boy from Ranchi whose rise to cricketing super-stardom is nothing if not legendary. I admit I was uncomfortable about watching this biopic – for one, he’s still alive. As if that weren’t enough to deter the film maker, the subject of the biopic is still an active player, very much on people’s minds and in the public sphere. Will we wait for nothing anymore? But while watching the movie, I found I was able to watch it as a movie for the most part, in spite of recalling with great clarity the 2011 world cup or the long brown hair that was his signature look. This might be because The Untold Story hits many of the right notes. It is a warm movie, filled with genuine goodness – everyone is equipped with a kindness of heart that seems reminiscent of a different area, or at least a different milieu. Even the man who might have become a villain in another movie apologizes for an error that cost Dhoni an opportunity, never mind if that mistake came about due to circumstances rather than any ill will on his part.
The movie also serves to add to the myth that the man has become. We watch Dhoni playing badminton with a girl when his friends let him know he’s been selected for the India A team. He doesn’t break his concentration or show any emotion on his face, he waits until he finishes his game, and we see the outline of a smile on his face. We find out he was always this way. As a young boy, when the school’s cricket coach asks him if he is scared of the hard ball used in cricket and if that is why he isn’t interested in trying out for the wicket keeper’s position, he answers with great confidence that he isn’t scared. Or his belief that great things are in store for him. Is this all true? It needn’t be, and that wouldn’t take away the experience of watching the movie. Sushant Singh Rajput is unbelievably good as the titular character, neither imitating nor hamming. I cannot imagine how he found that balance, he walks and talks the way Dhoni would (and apparently his cricket is a close enough match too), and it still comes across as an interpretation of Dhoni. There are the usual suspects we expect in a movie like this – the supportive mother and sister, the strict but secretly supportive father, the friends who are loyal beyond a fault, the coach who finds the diamond in the rough, the mentor who dispenses advice for navigating life, the romantic interest/cheerleader – the clichés are all present, but they don’t grate.
I didn’t expect to enjoy The Untold Story as much as I did. Yet there I was, crying my way through the momentous occasions in M.S. Dhoni’s life. It isn’t just the story of a man; it is also the story of the nation he holds spellbound.