In 1999-2000, when the pre-production work for Lagaan was underway, director Ashutosh Gowariker was in talks with Shah Rukh Khan to play the lead. Shah Rukh had concerns about the box office feasibility of the film, given that sports films were few and far until then. Of course, Lagaan wasn’t just a sports film but nevertheless, cricket was a major part of the film. Highly skeptical, Shah Rukh opted out of the project and eventually, Aamir Khan was on board. The rest, as they say, is history.
Almost two decades since then, we see a plethora of sports-centric films being released. Some are biopics while others have fictional plots with a certain sport as its focal point. As long as the screenplay is engaging and packaged neatly, the viewers are always happy to lap it up. The latest sports flick set to join the club is Tamil superstar Vijay’s upcoming Diwali release Bigil, which is set in the backdrop of football, wherein a group of women are coached to glory by the protagonist. The synopsis does instantly remind us of the Bollywood hit Chak De India.
Sports films are guaranteed to set the cash registers ringing, provided they are made well. As a bare plot line, every film in this genre ends up having a rather similar theme of underdogs fighting against all odds to achieve success. But that’s its appeal factor. If we look back at some of the most famous sporting achievements, there would be enough and more of such tales. Maybe, it’s the effect of real-life sports incidents on our psyche that enables us to believe even the fictional tales from this genre. Sports biopics generate a lot of buzz right from the time of its announcement—Ranvir Singh’s upcoming Kapil Dev biopic 83 being an example.
Till date, over 100 films have been made in the sports genre in all languages in India, and the count has increased drastically in this decade. 2019 alone has seen quite a few already—Jersey, Pailwaan, Natpe Thunai, The Zoya Factor, Kennedy Club, Finals and Pettikadai. Even Telugu actor Vijay Deverakonda’s critically acclaimed Dear Comrade had sports as a significant sub-plot in it. As far as Bigil is concerned, we hear that it will be Vijay’s most expensive film till date, with exorbitant amounts being splashed on the set designs and the football sequences.
While the financial success of sports biopics is undeniable, it often comes at the cost of originality with regard to the script. While cinematic liberty is tolerable to some extent, film-makers these days (mostly in Bollywood) are pushing things too far. Remember the climax scene in Dangal when Mahavir Phogat (Aamir Khan) is locked inside a room, unable to view the glory-clinching moment of his daughter Geeta. It’s a no-brainer that such an incident never happened, and that it was fictionalized to spice up the climax.
Similarly, in the Mary Kom biopic, the climax portions had the legend wrestling it out in a World Championship summit clash while her son is undergoing a critical operation. These juxtaposed events happened months apart, in reality. Apart from the blatant factual errors in these two films, the scripting was also sprinkled with masala elements to add thrill to it.
You don’t necessarily need a biopic to generate revenue. Just having sports incorporated as a core theme into the script could do as well. Salman Khan’s 2016 blockbuster Sultan was one such masala potboiler on desi wrestling. It’s a subject that Kannada superstar Sudeep too touched upon in his recent release Pailwaan.
South Cinema has been actively churning out sports films of late. Malayalam Films like 1983, Captain, Godha, Sudani from Nigeria, and Tamil films like Chennai 600628, Kanaa and Jersey in Telugu have shown that there is a diverse sub-genre in sports films that can be explored with smart scripting. Unlike biopics, fictional sports films offer the scriptwriter more room to weave the sport into narrative to take the story forward. In Nani’s Jersey, cricket is the core theme of the film and the storytelling revolves around the hero’s ebb-and-flow in the sport. In contrast, Chennai 600628 has used cricket more as a tool to showcase the bonding among the characters in the film. Nivin Pauly’s 1983 is a film which invokes nostalgia.
While cricket has dominated the genre for obvious reasons, other sports have also got their due, mainly in biopics. When Chak De became a bona fide blockbuster in 2007, the awareness around the national sport grew. Kabaddi, wrestling and athletics have been the other major draws for sports films. Going forward, we could see film-makers tapping more sporting events, as and when new heroes emerge. Badminton star Saina Nehwal’s biopic is currently under production.
As it is, sports films have a huge impact at the box office, and it multiplies several times when you cast a superstar to play the lead. Shah Rukh Khan in Chak De India, Aamir Khan in Dangal and Salman Khan in Sultan instantly come to mind. Therefore, it’s not surprising to see an unprecedented buzz around Bigil. For starters, it’s a Vijay film at the peak of his career, and his featuring in a sports entertainer gives us memories of his 2004 blockbuster Ghilly, which had Kabaddi as the backdrop. That was the film which pushed Vijay into superstardom, and 15 years later, Bigil could be the one that takes him to the next level. Given the scale of the product, director Atlee’s packaging skills and the irresistible charm of sports films, Bigil is likely to be a runaway success.
There’s nothing that relates and connects with the audience than a well-packed sports entertainer, irrespective of whether it’s a biopic or not. As a result, film-makers are busy milking the box office potential of the genre. No one is complaining though.