Be a sport!

As ‘Jersey’ is ready to hit the screens, here’s a look at some oft-repeated tropes in sports films

Gowtam Tinnanuri was a software engineer before he entered Telugu cinema as a writer-director. In the IT sector, he had worked with colleagues in his age group who were on a level footing; there was natural progression of seniority and career growth. He noticed a stark difference in the film industry though. A few made the cut as director, actor or cinematographer in their 20s, while many others remained as assistants, well into their 30s and 40s. “All of them have stories to share; they have watched others make quick progress,” says Gowtam. The trigger for his directorial Jersey, releasing on April 19, came from such observations and the concept of late bloomers.

Jersey is the story of an underdog, 36-year-old cricketer Arjun (essayed by Nani) who still nurtures hopes of proving himself in cricket. “In sports, more than anywhere else, age is a limiting factor. I felt that would be an interesting premise,” says Gowtam. There have been very few sports films in Telugu, and Gowtam remembers watching Ashwini (1991), based on the life of athlete Ashwini Nachappa. “A sports film, especially an underdog story, can be inspirational,” he adds. Indian sports biopics and fictions to revisit

  • Cricket: M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story, Lagaan, Golconda High School (Telugu), Iqbal
  • Athletics: Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, Ashwini (Telugu)
  • Boxing: Mary Kom, Guru
  • Wrestling: Dangal
  • Hockey: Chak de India, Gold
  • Rugby: Sye (Telugu)
  • Kabaddi: Okkadu (Telugu)
  • In the making: Biopics of Saina Nehwal and Pullela Gopichand; Ranveer Singh starrer 1983, on India’s first cricket world cup win.

An underdog story that’s narrated well, never goes out of fashion. There’s something reassuring about watching someone from nowhere, rise to the top tackling hurdles along the way. In this process, sports films touch upon issues pertaining to social strata, gender, caste and more. Quite often, the protagonist is from a small town, nurturing big dreams — the big moment lies in winning for the country.

A sports-centric underdog film has the potential to make viewers cheer the protagonist and his/her team all the way to the winning moment. If you’ve clapped your way through the cricket portions of Lagaan or rooted for the unruly young women who finally play as a team and win the fictitious world hockey championship in Chak De India, you’ll get the drift.

Whether it’s a biopic inspired by real-life personalities, like M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story and Dangal, partly fictional accounts (like Chak De India which was loosely based on hockey player Mir Ranjan Negi) or completely fictional ones like Nagesh Kukunoor’s Iqbal where a deaf and mute lad dreams of playing cricket, sports films follow a broadly familiar arc — hailing from humble backgrounds and rising above the politicking to conquer the world.

Ritika Singh and Venkatesh in ‘Guru’

Ritika Singh and Venkatesh in ‘Guru’  

Within this framework, a few writer-directors present stories backed by in-depth research. Take the case of Sudha Kongara’s Guru (Madhavan-starrer Irudhi Suttru in Tamil and Saala Khadoos in Hindi) which starred Venkatesh as the temperamental boxing coach and Ritika Singh as the young boxer. The story was inspired by a news clipping of children from low income groups in Chennai’s Royapuram learning boxing in the hope of getting government jobs. Sudha interviewed coaches and girls from the area, and a fictional story inspired by real incidents brewed.

A recurring trope in sports dramas is the role of the disillusioned coach. In some stories the onus is on the out-of-work and shamed coaches to instil the drive to win in young sportspersons — Shah Rukh Khan in Chak De India with the now-eponymous sattar-minute dialogue, Aamir Khan as Mahavir Singh Phogat in Dangal, and Venkatesh in Guru. In Nagesh Kukunoor’s Iqbal, it’s the siblings Iqbal (Shreyas Talpade) and Khatija (Shweta Prasad) who turn the alcoholic guru (Naseeruddin Shah) into a responsible coach. When the young sportspersons win, the coaches also slay the demons from their past. The other trope involves issues related to land — Lagaan, Golconda High School and Sye (both Telugu).

Shah Rukh Khan in Chak de India!

Shah Rukh Khan in Chak de India!  

To keep the audience invested in the narratives, the sport aspect has to be depicted with authenticity. It’s a bonus when some of the actors have learnt the sport. For instance, Chak De India involved women who played hockey, Ritika Singh of Guru is a trained boxer, and Farhan Akhtar underwent rigorous training to look convincing as Milkha Singh.

Jersey’s lead actor Nani asserts, “Ours is a fictional story of a sportsman and his family, but we gave it the treatment of a biopic. We felt that for the audience to be emotionally connected to his story, the cricket portions were important.” Professional cricketers were roped in, Nani went through 70 days of training, elaborate storyboarding and visualisation was done prior to the shoot.

Gowtam chips in, “We wanted to give the audience a feeling of watching a live match. To give you an idea, we would have 70 to 80 shots from multiple angles for a one-minute sequence,” says Gowtam.

This is a process every sports film goes through, to give viewers the adrenaline rush and root for the underdog’s winning moment.

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