September 30, 2016
Sushant Singh Rajput, Rajesh Sharma, Kumud Mishra, Anupam Kher, Kiara Advani, Disha Patani, Bhoomika Chawla, Neeta Mohindra
Hagiography or biography? Creators of biopics often struggle to decide between the two. M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story has different problems.
In skirting the most questionable aspects of cricketer Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s life, in sidestepping all controversies involving him and the BCCI through his reign, and in avoiding any mention of corruption in India’s sporting establishment, the film ends up attributing its protagonist’s trials almost entirely to fate, personal finances and heartbreak. The result: M.S. Dhoni is so lacking in energy and verve for the most part, that you have to wonder whether there is no mid-path between over-dramatisation and flatness.
Born in Ranchi to lower middle-class parents, Dhoni – Mahi to family and cricket fans – has gone on to become one of the game’s most successful players and team captains. It goes without saying the journey to this place has not been easy. It never is, not in any arena, not even if you are the child of a millionaire in a country that lays out the red carpet for sporting talent. In Mahi’s case, there are the added burdens of economically humble beginnings and the fact that India can be hell for anyone who wants to make a career on a sports field.
Our celluloid Mahi’s concerns are far more mundane. A government office fails to forward a letter in time, he misses a flight, a member of a selection committee tries to push someone else’s name over his for no apparent reason – while all these could well be possible, and that unforwarded letter is believable, the film fails to effectively convey the blood, sweat, tears and toil that must have gone into making Mahi the icon he is today.
Writer-director Neeraj Pandey’s latest work suffers primarily from his seeming determination to play it safe. Making Dhoni out to be an apolitical, all-round nice guy would have been a compulsion since the film is co-produced by the cricketer’s long-time friend and business associate Arun Pandey. Presenting a sanitised view of the BCCI and flitting over serious internal issues must have been necessary too since Dhoni is still in active sports and would obviously not want to offend his bosses with a film he has backed to the hilt through its promotions.
But what the bejeezus prompted the muting of even Virender Sehwag’s name at a selection committee meeting? Was this a Censor Board decision or a choice made by the filmmaker? The producer’s rep has not yet responded to an email query on this point, but even if the muting was sought by the Censors, it fits in with the overall, ultra-careful tone of the narrative.
M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story stars Sushant Singh Rajput as one of cricket’s brightest living stars. It begins with Mahi preparing to take the field at the 2011 Cricket World Cup. Before going deep into the game, it rewinds to a hospital on the day of Mahi’s birth and then follows his story in a linear fashion until it returns to 2011.
In the first half, the film does a good job of capturing the intimacy and sweetness of social interactions in small-town Ranchi, the warmth in Mahi’s pocket-sized home and the dreariness of life as a ticket inspector for a man whose dream is to play cricket, in contrast to his middle-class Indian father’s ultimate dream of a government job for his son. When Mahi lifts off in international cricket though, M.S. Dhoni dips.
With diplomacy being the storyteller’s main concern, post-interval it almost feels as if Mahi’s career milestones are being mechanically checked off a list. At this point, the film starts getting repetitive. Cricket match on. Enter: stressed out father (Anupam Kher) watching TV, mother at prayer in the room’s pooja corner, sister (Bhoomika Chawla) and brother-in-law cheering before a television in their home, tense mentors watching separately in their respective homes, friends watching at a shop. These scenes are amusing at first, but after a point and even when the parties get together, serve no purpose other than to add to the film’s inordinate length of 190 minutes along with numerous scenes of real-life matches into which Rajput is inserted.
The actor gets Mahi’s demeanour and a cricketer’s body language right. We already know he is capable of that from his fantastic film debut in Kai Po Che. After the exit of child star Zeeshan who plays a junior Mahi, Rajput also metamorphoses brilliantly from a physically slight youngster to a strapping adult over time in M.S. Dhoni, a result of excellent teamwork between him and the make-up, styling and camera departments. He is interesting too when playing happy, flirtatious or mischievous. In moments of sorrow and anxiety though, he falls short.
This inadequacy becomes particularly glaring when he shares screen space with the two stand-out members of the film’s impressive supporting cast: Rajesh Sharma and Kumud Mishra playing Mahi’s first coach and his first patron respectively.
Their junior by many years, young Kiara Advani steals the show from right under Rajput’s nose when she enters the picture as Mahi’s girlfriend Sakshi who becomes his wife.
It would be unfair though to judge Rajput by M.S. Dhoni. He was electric in Kai Po Che and deserves the benefit of the doubt in a film that ends up as an insipid PR exercise for the real Mahi.
The writing is occasionally even unthinking. At the hospital where Mahi is born, there is confusion over whether Pan Singh Dhoni’s wife gave birth to a girl or boy. In another country this could have been an acceptable moment of mirth about a nurse’s inefficiency. In boy-obsessed India and its sub-set – boy-obsessed Bihar – where male infants are sometimes stolen from hospitals, you wonder if a point is being made, and then realise that it is not. This is one among several superfluous scenes in the film.
I also did not understand the need to fictionalise Sakshi as being a complete stranger to Mahi when even a non-cricket fan like me has read that they were schoolmates. And why do we not get to see interactions between Mahi and cricketing legends Sourav Ganguly, Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag beyond file footage of matches? Yuvraj Singh (played by a well-cast and well-styled Harry Tangri) gets some space, but only very little.
Through M.S. Dhoni, there are flashes of humour and pleasant touches that show us what might have been if Pandey had not been constrained. My favourite moment is in the treatment of a friendly Pakistani gentleman who allows Mahi the use of his phone, without drums beating to announce his nationality and tackily link it to his goodness. He is there not as a harbinger of cross-border amity or discord as we see in most Hindi films, but as a regular person. I also enjoyed the way the film quietly addresses the challenge of being an ordinary young woman in a conservative society romantically linked to one of the country’s most famous men.
Overall though, the screenplay lacks insights and depth. M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story starts off well but does not seem to know where to go from there.
If Neeraj Pandey needed to be this careful, perhaps he should have manufactured a bottle of antiseptic instead of making a film.
Rating (out of five): **1/4
CBFC Rating (India):
A version of this review has also been published on Firstpost:
Poster courtesy: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M.S._Dhoni:_The_Untold_Story