India’s performance at the Olympics in Rio this year might have been lacklustre, but Bollywood has churned out gold when it comes to sports with this year’s biggest films, Sultan and Dangal. Interestingly, both films talk of women empowerment, as well as bringing lesser-known sports like wrestling and mixed martial arts into the limelight. It was the same story at Rio, where the likes of PV Sindhu, Sakshi Malik and Dipa Karmakar led India’s charge in badminton, wrestling and gymnastics.
“Dangal is all about women empowerment and it definitely reflects the mood of the audience today. That is why I have been saying that Dangal will be the biggest hit of Indian cinema ever. It actually talks about women empowerment the way it should be,” says film critic and trade analyst Komal Nahta.
Some industry experts and critics believe that the move to portray dominant women characters in films also makes sense commercially. “I’ve seen Dangal and the role of women is actually very significant. From a pure commerce point of view, women are 50% of our market. I think they have been ignored as a potential revenue stream by our producers for far too long. It’s also art imitating reality, because women are also the ones that are making us proud on the sporting front—be it Sindhu, Dipa or Sakshi Malik. I am glad our films are also reflecting that,” says Nitin Tej Ahuja, publisher of Box Office India magazine.
The Salman Khan-starrer Sultan was released in July this year and went on to become one of the highest grossing Indian films of all time. Dangal, say industry experts, might surpass even that and could become the biggest ever film to come out of the Bollywood stable. In fact, the Aamir Khan-starrer received the highest ever advance opening on BookMyShow. The movie witnessed approximately 40% more advance bookings on BookMyShow for the opening week as compared to other blockbusters in 2016. Dangal collected R29.78 crore on its first day, with the film expected to cross R100 crore in the first weekend, as per industry figures. Trade analyst and film critic Taran Adarsh tweeted, “#Dangal wrestles demonetisation… Sets the BO on fire… Ends the lull phase… Fri R29.78 cr (incl R59 lacs from Tamil and Telugu).” On its release day, Sultan had raked in more than R36 crore.
Ahuja says while sports is the perfect mix of drama, spectacle and suspense, a lot of credit has to go the filmmakers and the quality of the films too.
“Just making a film on sports doesn’t necessarily ensure a hit. Sports definitely lends itself to a good cinematic experience, but it’s up to the quality of the film if it can live up to that potential,” Ahuja adds.
However, Nahta says even if there was no sports involved in Sultan and Dangal, “the screenplays and scripts are so powerful that they would have turned out to be the two biggest hits of this year”.
So are sports-based films finally a winning formula? Movies like Hip Hip Hurray (1984) and Kabhi Ajnabi The (1985), starring cricketer Sandeep Patil and cameos from Sunil Gavaskar and Kapil Dev, were sporting flicks that never worked. They formed a perception in the film industry that sporting films did not translate into good business.
The turning point, however, was Lagaan (2001), which was also nominated for the Academy Award for best foreign language film. “I think Lagaan significantly changed that perception. Chak De! India (2007) probably is the fore-runner to what we are seeing now in Sultan and Dangal, where the hero is actually taking the back seat and the women are in focus. Another milestone in this journey was Bhaag Milkha Bhaag… What you are seeing now is the culmination of the seeds that were sown,” feels Ahuja.
The year saw a glut of other sports-based movies—Azhar (cricket), Saala Khadoos (boxing), Freaky Ali (golf) and M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story—but not all of them elicited a positive response from audiences, with Dhoni being an exception. While cricket still rules the roost in India, mixed martial arts (MMA) did not have a big fanbase earlier. Wrestling has traditionally been a male-dominated sport and was teetering on the brink of obscurity before Malik’s heroics at the Rio Olympics.