Sports movies need the clash of personalities

The movies that work despite handicaps rely on one of two elements — nostalgia or treatment.

In the Hindi movie, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, based on former Indian athlete Milkha Singh’s life story, Farhan Akhtar portrayed the title role to perfection.   -  AFP

Movies on events and personalities in sport work under major handicaps. For one, the event is usually well known. And for another, the personalities tend to be those who performed relatively close to our times. Movies also come after millions of words have been written about their main character, which means there are seldom any surprises. What does a fan not know about Sachin’s cricket?

The movies that work despite these handicaps rely on one of two elements — nostalgia or treatment. Pawn Sacrifice, the story of the Bobby Fischer-Boris Spassky chess title clash in 1972 worked well on both grounds. Many people took to playing chess as a result of the enormous publicity afforded to that match. The Soviet Union saw that clash as one between intellectual Russia and the decadent West, while the West gloried in Fischer’s victory.

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There was too the personality of Fischer himself — eccentric, uncontrollable, a genius once compared to Isaac Newton, and an unpredictable man who didn’t seem to live by the rules others did. It worked very well for the movie — the overarching theme, the smaller issues, the personalities, the reaction of the rest of the world.

I recently watched the movie of another iconic sporting event — the wonderful Wimbledon final of 1980 in Borg v McEnroe. Again, nostalgia and treatment came together nicely, as did the story of Borg the ‘volcano’ (as Vitas Gerulaitis referred to him) who came to the edge of eruption often but always controlled himself. This in sharp contrast to McEnroe who erupted so often that spectators were sometimes disappointed when he didn’t. Perhaps, sports movies need a third dimension too — the clash of personalities. Spassky was the Borg to Fischer’s McEnroe, for example, the element of American entitlement ever present.

Top Indian sportsmen tend to be more Borg-like. There is a movie waiting to be made on Prakash Padukone, the man who first showed, elegantly and politely that the giant-killers of Chinese badminton could be tamed. I hear Bollywood is making a movie on Kapil Dev and the 1983 World Cup. On recent evidence, it might be another hagiography, birth-to-retirement-with-everything-else-you didn’t-need-to-know kind of a movie.

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The hope is that it is plugged to a single event (spoiler alert: India won that World Cup), and therefore might not have too much padding. I enjoyed the movie on Milkha Singh, and even the one on Mary Kom despite its lead actor.

Sometimes the handicaps mentioned might turn out to be advantages. I may be generalising without proper evidence here, but I suspect Indian audiences prefer known stories to surprises. Biopics on sportsmen and movies on sporting contests lack surprises (they need tension, which is another matter), and that is usually welcome.