Bollywood has had an appetite for experimenting in new genres, but with a high degree of precaution. The most predominant theme in the post-1950 era has revolved around a fight (or struggle) between a protagonist (the hero) and a villain.
Another popular theme would be that of the commentary on stigmas that plagued the society. It was not until the early 1980s when pioneering directors like Kundan Shah and Hrishikesh Mukherjee explored such genres as black comedy with their path-breaking movies like Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, Golmaal and Khoobsurat. Even the periodic genre or horror genre was explored sporadically in the 20th century.
History of Sports Genre in Bollywood
One such genre that laid widely unexplored was that of sports movies. In fact, the appearance of Sports in Indian films had been waved aside for quite a long time. Even if they did make a sports movie, it did not garner as much respect as other genres.
However, one cannot blame the film industry for ignoring sports. Afterall, apart from India’s blazing success in hockey, there was scanty movement in the other forms of sports. Barring some rare incidents like the 8 Olympic gold from hockey and the 1983 Cricket World Cup, there was not much to show for.
Another important aspect was the lack of realisation that sports movies could also make for compelling content rather than ending up feeling like a documentary.
As a result, while the sports legends likes of Jesse Owens and Muhammad Ali went on to inspire copious biographies and sports movies, stories of Indian heroes like Major Dhyan Chand and Milkha Singh remained untold.
Add to that the feeble response that such ‘different’ forms of movie received, and it can very well be understood why sports did not appear on the big screen on a huge scale.
The first prominent movie that was connected to sports was ‘All-Rounder’ that was produced and directed by Mohan Kumar. The plot of the 1984-flick revolved around a successful cricketer who vows to redeem his lost image and career after embroiling in a major controversy.
“Hip Hip Hurray” was another movie with sports as a backdrop which was released that year. It was based on how the protagonist, a computer engineer, led a school football team to victory on his temporary job. It was path-breaking in many ways, most prominent being that the movie was based on football in an era when cricket was gaining humongous popularity. (India had just won the 1983 World Cup)
The Modern Era
However, the real renaissance of sports in Bollywood was kicked off by a 2001 move by the name Lagaan. The Amir Khan-starrer periodic drama-sports flick, made at a huge budget of ₹30 crore, indeed broke many stereotypes after its release. Set in a village in British India, it depicted the story of a group of Indian men competing against Englishmen on a cricket ground.
It not only portrayed sports in a compelling fashion but also as a source of liberation. It celebrated the ‘Indianness’ in the most joyous manner without a hint of chauvinism. It also showed that critically acclaimed films could be commercial hit as well. It wasn’t surprising that the movie went on to become only the third movie from India to be nominated in the Oscar’s Best Foreign Film category. Lagaan was the torch bearer, a role model for a number of sports-based motion pictures to come.
2005 saw another cricket movie ‘Iqbal’ release to a critical acclaim. The Nagesh Kukunoor directed movie spoke about a deaf and mute player named Iqbal who aspired to play for the national cricket team. It was a path-breaking flick as well, in that it talked about bowling rather than batting, a first. It then depicted the various social stigmas and cricket politics among others.
The sports genre were predominantly based on three types of format –
- Where the narrative revolved specifically around sports. (Chak De! India)
- Where the narrative was strictly based on the life of an athlete and his/her struggles. (Bhaag Milkha Bhaag)
- where the narrative sports was used as a base to depict the bigger social, political or cultural problems in the society. (Dangal)
This decade saw as many as 15 movies released in the domain. They included indie flicks like Mukkabaaz to mainstream entertainers like Sultan and Gold. Numerous biographies such as those on Mary Kom, Milkha Singh, MS Dhoni, Sandeep Singh also released post 2010. In fact, two big biographies based on the lives of Saina Nehwal and Kapil Dev have been announced recently, further cementing the fact that sports movies are here to stay.
The 2016 Amir Khan-starrer Dangal took the stakes even higher when it became the highest grossing film in Indian Cinema history. Not only in India, but it also went on to entertain the masses in China. In fact, it grossed $ 180 million there, more than twice it’s business in India.
Uncannily, the rise in the number of sports movies being released also coincided with the rise in country’s sports achievements. Indian athletes have won 11 Olympic medals, a cricket World Cup and 23 medals in the Youth Olympic Games in the last decade.
Sports movie genre is one of the most positive forms of cinema. It has the ability to bring forward the the various issues and challenges, albeit in an entertaining fashion. It stands for such vital values like liberation, resilience and unfailing spirit among others.
A good sport movie provides the thrill as well as the wisdom all at the same time without being too preachy. It also helps in the promotion of sports and inspire millions of youngsters to make a career in the same. Biographies ensure that legendary sports persons and their contributions to the country are not forgotten.
It goes without saying that sports movies are as important to the film industry as they are to sports itself.