Why can’t Bollywood keep its sports films real?
One of the visuals in Bhaag Milkha Bhaag had several people asking me, because they think I ought to know these things, did this really happen?
The scene had Farhan Akhtar who played Milkha Singh with great muscularity, lifting a bikini-clad woman on an Australian beach: the promising (this is before he became legendary) Indian athlete, in that faraway continent for a race, is bench-pressing for better preparedness, and the pretty blonde is being used as a weight. It is a striking visual, and it will stay with me for its sexy playfulness. It is clear that these two are young and attracted to each other, and will doubtless be in each other’s arms the moment they are away from our curious eyes.
But if you ask Milkha himself, he will tell you that the scene was pure fiction. He didn’t really meet a sweet Aussie girl and have a fling with her. There’s a lot more in the film that was not fact, in fact: one of the songs Milkha and his compatriots sing while swilling beer in an Australian pub takes the whole creative liberties thing to a ridiculous degree.
And yet, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag is very clearly the story of the man who is one of India’s greatest sports stars. The viewers who have flocked to it in large numbers have made it one of this year’s biggest hits. They’ve set aside caustic critiques, and gone looking for a film which stars a beloved sports figure who is, and this is important to note, “inspiring”. They have ignored a disingenuous line that states, just before the end credits roll, that the film is “inspired by a true life”. That we the audience can call it a biopic, but the film doesn’t anywhere clearly state that.
The success of BMB tells you something about why Bollywood doesn’t make great “sports” films. To get the mass audience to embrace your film, you have to lace fact with fiction. If you make a film that sticks close to the life and achievements of a famous sporting personality, how will you sex it up? And without that, your average viewer will damn it by calling it a “documentary” and stay away.
Which is why the filmi Milkha is given a girlfriend, and a faux romance. He is made to sing and dance in army dormitories and pubs. His failures are glossed over by slo-mo camera work and melodramatic music. His wins are accompanied by swelling orchestral music which tells us that now we must applaud.
Paan Singh Tomar also featured a national award winning athlete, and the film won a national award too. It was a much more true-to-life portrayal of a man who could have got his country laurels if circumstances hadn’t forced him to turn into a dacoit. The film could have had Irrfan’s Paan Singh stab his rifle into the air, and do a jig with his fellow daakus. But it stays close to the sombre mood and tone of the mud-coloured ravines that Paan Singh takes refuge in, once the system he worshipped abandons him. Because of its veracity, it is high in terms of satisfaction, but doesn’t go about breaking box-office records: it has to be content with making more than it thought it would, and with the critical acclaim.
Why don’t we make true-to-life sports films? Why do we need to dress them up to make them palatable? Why is masala needed to be sprinkled so liberally that you drown out all other tastes? Why are we so afraid of seeing the truth on screen?
Because gloss is what we want above everything. Decades of having our taste debased by filmmakers, who only have an eye on the bottomline, have made us unused to films that break that mould. Why don’t we have our own Chariots Of Fire, an unforgettable film on striving and losing and winning? Or even the much more “mainstream” Jerry Maguire, in which the good-looking Tom Cruise plays a greedy sports agent who has a change of heart?
Because in a real sports movie, like in all “real” movies about real things and people, reality has to be right on top. You can’t fake it. The moment you do, it becomes Bollywood melodrama. Feature films that are based on real events are distinctly different from documentaries: the treatment makes it so. And just as documentaries are not necessarily dry, there is no need for features to be revved up with faux drama.
Now medal-winner Mary Kom’s life and achievements are about to be made into a film. Tell me, how much are you hearing about the boxer in the build-up? All the manufactured buzz is about Priyanka Chopra who is playing her. How she’s prepping, how much weight she will have to lose, and how she will train: that is the narrative, but whose is it really? Once the film is on the screen, will the real Mary Kom come through?
The time has come for the audience be made an ally in this attempt: try us, why don’t you?