A father and a son. While young and full of promise, the father dreamed of becoming a professional cricket player. Things happened, and that dream that could never turn into reality turned into a scab. The father picks at it whenever he is bored or feels inadequate. The son grows old enough to pick social cues from his father, but thankfully, he only inherits his father's passion for the game. So, the father decides to give his son the future he could only dream about. Abrid Shine's 1983 (2014), as the title suggests, uses the '83 win as a catalyst for a man's emotional coming-of-age. It also pays a better tribute to the Indian Cricket team's momentous victory than Kabir Khan's 83 (2022), the film based on the events of that time. Focusing on how the event positively affected a people far removed from the proceedings, the film heralds the victory and the team behind it.
As important as the sport is to a "sports drama", it is more vital to know what the game represents or invokes. My problem with a formulaic sports drama isn't the sport; it is how the writer uses the sport to cover up lazy writing. If you are asking me, in good faith, to spend some time with your protagonist, they have to be so much more than the sport they are good at. Take the recent film Lakshya (2021), for example. Neither the ripped muscles nor the game can hide that the leading man is an etch-a-sketch version of a human being. Yes, the protagonist's passion for a game should motivate them, but it shouldn't define them. The same goes for the film as well.
People look forward to the innovative set-pieces—how a filmmaker chooses to capture the action innate yet unique to every sport, but it's the emotions that they carry home. Don't tell me how good your hero is at a game; tell me why and how they got there. Tell me what happens when they go home. Let them win, but give me a reason to root for them.
Keeping all that in mind, here goes the list of my favourite sports dramas in chronological order:
Biopics are, by nature, compromises. The filmmaker needs to be adept at working with half-truths. And when you remove the distraction of an actor trying to resemble the player they are play-acting, all that remains is the story. What makes Ashwini noteworthy isn't just that the athlete herself gets to play her role. It is also how B. C. Mouli, writer-director, manages to embellish the story with many subplots and still stays true to Ashwini's journey. The film doesn't associate itself with the seriousness you expect in such an endeavour. It never pretends to be anything but a personal journey. She makes the nation proud, but that is secondary to her and the film. The player-coach relationship and the way the coach's wife has a part to play also allude to sensible writing. The melodrama is a byproduct of the times, but everything else still works.
Such a clever title, isn't it? The star still gets to play the titular role, yet it also tells you how the elder brother begins it all. Arun Prasad takes his time establishing his characters and their lives. The sport isn't our hero's passion. He takes the mantle from and for his brother, but it helps him come of age. Surya's intense yet distant coach also is a welcome subversion. Yes, the equation between the player and their coach is sacred, but it need not always verge on unprofessional. Do I appreciate how the film blames Lovely for ditching Subbu, even though she has been clear about her preferences and he is the one who lied to her? No. But did I care? Also, no. Hindsight is peculiar, and Pawan Kalyan's charm in the 90s knew no bounds.
This film by Venky follows the same template of "the boy needs to win something to get the girl." What sets it apart is its treatment and how it achieves it. Big words like "Olympics" and "national team" are exciting, but a group of eccentric and, quite frankly, clueless men coming together to win a game of kabaddi is most entertaining. It's refreshing to see a sports film set in a village where no one is allowed to take themselves too seriously. Some of the humour might not have aged well. Still, the lineup of comedians like Brahmanandam, Tanikella Bharani, M. S. Narayana, Jaya Prakash Reddy, Kondavalasa, and Krishna Bhagawan makes for a joyous watch.
So, I am in two minds about this film. I don't think Sye is a great film—the romantic angle is creepy and weak, the violence is gratuitous, and there are many moments of unnecessary vulgarness. Having said that, Sye is still a great sports movie. It takes so much confidence and skill to introduce a culture to a practically alien sport like rugby. Rajamouli doesn't just manage to engage his viewers, he also succeeds in popularising rugby in the Telugu states. Most of this has to do with the fantastic way the matches are conceptualised and shot. Rajamouli revels in the opportunity provided by a bloody sport and paints the screen red. Bhikshu Yadhav's (Pradeep Rawat, villain) face is forever burned on my mind. The film is abrasive and hyper-masculine, but it works. Keeravani's winning score helps as well.
Yes, I know I said that it is tiresome when a coach and their player start blurring the lines of professionalism but provided a good context, it works. Sudha Kongara's Guru is one such film where she positions two hotheads together so that one keeps the other in check. Their relationship needs to go beyond the professional boundaries of a mentor-mentee equation because they both have baggage that needs resolution. Since it is that rare film where the player is a woman, it had an opportunity to show the gender disparity in sports—how different a male athlete's journey is from his female counterpart. No one plays a mean goody as Venkatesh does, and, despite being a newcomer, Rithika Singh matches him without a slip. The film has one of the best endings—tender and carefree.
Nani seems to love dying in the name of sport, but, unlike Bheemili Kabaddi Jattu, Gowtam Tinnanuri's Jersey has a better grasp on the audience manipulation. The son who speaks rather eloquently for his age isn't just there to make us cry. He is the film's protagonist as much as his father is. The sport, too, isn't a simple event. Cricket is where Arjun hangs his sense of pride. Being good at it is the only time he feels useful, so even if the ending leaves a bitter aftertaste, you understand the complexity at play. Why is it one of my favourite sports dramas? Because it spends some of its time focusing on the people around the player—how it affects them and changes them. And even if it's not the film's intention, it shows how destructive passion could be and how helpless and hollow a person becomes in its absence.
Kiran Korrapati's Ghani is releasing this Friday. From what I could glean, it is about a boxer whose mother is against the idea of him playing a dangerous sport is. It might not be fair to pin my weariness on a film yet to be released. It isn't the fault of the yet-to-be-released movie that the last few sports films I've watched have disappointed me, some more than the others, but I am who I am. And I've long abandoned the idea of objectivity which purports that for film critics to be good at what they do, they have to be clean their slates blank every time they enter a movie theatre. Despite the death of many brain cells, I'm still not at that level of forgetfulness.
I understand the lucrative business behind a sports drama—especially the biopics of sports personalities. Since they are here to stay, let's hope they make ones worthy of our time and attention.