It's the final minutes of the penalty shoot-out between Indian and Australia. The score's 5-4 in India's favour, but a well-placed strike from the Australian side can even the odds of winning the World Cup. As the Australian player steps up, the Indian coach looks at the contradictory positions of her hockey stick and her feet and calculates that she will hit the ball straight. With seconds to spare, he signals to the goalie. There are beads of sweat on her face and the pounding of her heart drowns out every other sound. She stands her ground and swats the ball away, almost surprised at how easy it was. There's a whistle, then deafening roars, teary eyes and a shot of the Tricolour swaying gently in the breeze.
In the 12 years since Chak De! India released, Bollywood's shown no signs of slowing down the production of sports movies. Three released last year – Anurag Kashyap's boxing drama Mukkabaaz, Shaad Ali's hockey biopic Soorma and Reema Kagti's take on India's hockey win at the 1984 Olympics, Gold. Two months from now, Tushar Hiranandani's Saand Ki Aankh will tell the story of 60-year-old sharpshooter sisters-in-law Chandro and Prakashi Tomar. Three big sports dramas are slated for release next year. There's Kabir Khan's 83, based on the national cricket team's 1983 Cricket World Cup win, Ashwini Iyer Tiwari's kabaddi film Panga and Ajay Devgn-starrer Maidaan, which will depict the golden era of Indian football. There's more – director Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra is currently working on fictional boxing movie Toofan, a Saina Nehwal biopic is being helmed by Amole Gupte and a Hindi remake of Telugu cricket film Jersey is in the works.
"Indians are probably playing more sport than ever before. You have all these leagues coming up – hockey, badminton, kabaddi, wrestling. Hence these sports end up becoming the backdrop of films," says a producer who is making a major sports film. While the genre also seems lucrative (Dangal is the fourth–highest grossing film in the country), that's not always the case, he says. Though most sports films follow a standard template – discovery of talent – training montage – inspirational anthem – humiliating loss – triumphant comeback – commentary on social issues – there's an art to getting them right.
Where do you begin? If you're Nagesh Kukunoor, you turn to the classic American sports film for inspiration. The director, who cites Field of Dreams (1989), the Rocky movies, Rudy (1993), Chariots of Fire (1981) and Tin Cup (1996) as some of his favourites, knew exactly what elements he wanted Iqbal (2005) to have when he began writing it. "Every sports film follows one basic rule and that's of the underdog surmounting all odds. The sports film has been done to death but it never fails. Never. Because it's like watching another match and finding the story of that one person playing. As a scriptwriter, you set out things for the protagonist to overcome," he says. The speech and hearing impaired Iqbal (Shreyas Talpade) must not only surmount his poverty and his father's opposition to the sport but also convince a former cricketer (Naseeruddin Shah) to become his mentor after he is kicked out of his coaching class. The obstacle there – the coach is reluctant and very, very drunk. The final hurdle comes towards the end of the film when Iqbal's offered a bribe to throw the match. Of course, he triumphs.
The underdog theme recurs in most Bollywood sports movies. In Mukkabaaz, Shravan Singh's (Vineet Singh Kumar) real fight isn't against opponents in the ring, but against the constraints of the caste system and the threats of cow vigilantism. Even one of the fastest men alive, Milkha Singh, is haunted by memories of The Partition and his parents' deaths in Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (2013). The seemingly insurmountable odds against Mary Kom after her third world championship are what made writer Saiwyn Quadras pick that as the focal point of his 2014 film. "By the time I started writing, Mary was a five-time world champion. I could've picked any of her championships, but from the get-go, I knew that her comeback post the two-year break after her pregnancy was the high point. She was told she would never be able to box again," he says.
Underdog stories don't always equal gloom and doom. Saand Ki Aankh (2019) writer Balwinder Singh Janjua always knew that despite its often-dark subject matter, he wanted to tell the Tomars' story with humour. So he wrote ridiculous lies that the women tell their patriarchal, unsupportive husbands every time they have to leave for tournaments. "They'd say things like: We have to go for a darshan. And then their photos would appear in the next day's paper because they'd win medals," he says. The Tomars have 16 children and 30 grandchildren between them – a fact he hopes will elicit some chuckles in theatres. "The film shows how they just went on having children despite family planning. There's even a song about it."
A three-day visit to the family in Bagpat, Uttar Pradesh, is what helped him crack the approach to the film long before he started writing it. "It's this idea of tan buddha hota, mann nahi. People hardly know about the sport of pistol shooting – how many rounds there are, how scoring works. So authenticity was not as important as the emotion it evokes," says director Tushar Hiranandani.
But Dangal co-writer and director Nitesh Tiwari was insistent that every writer and crew member understood the finer points of wrestling. "Only then can you can write the fight sequences. As a writer, you should know about tie-breakers, technical knockouts." The next step was making sure the audience understood them as well. Take the scene in which Mahavir Phogat (Aamir Khan) breaks down wrestling's point system by demonstrating on his reluctant nephew. "Jo toone saamnewaale ki body ko uchhaalkar, indradhanush ki tariyaan arc banaate hue peeth ke bal gira diya toh toone paanch points mil jaayenge," he explains. The exposition-heavy speech doubles up as a Dummies' Guide To Wrestling for the audience. The line pays off in the film's climax – it's the move Geeta Phogat (Fatima Sana Shaikh) uses to defeat her opponent in the finals of the Commonwealth Games.
Kukunoor loves this trope too. "There's always that one unique thing that the guru imparts to the student and in the most unlikely of places, the student employs it." His checklist of other must-haves include "the one special person who never loses faith in the protagonist", the "inspirational song" that gets the audience singing along and the training montage. "The entire shoot of Iqbal, every time there was a free moment, sunrise-sunset and in between, any free minute that I had, I shot montages and peppered the whole movie with it."
It's hard to imagine the sports movie without the training montage and with good reason, says Vineet Singh Kumar, who's played a boxer in Mukkabaaz and a hockey player in Gold. The extensive training depicted in sports films mirrored his own. Director Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari signed herself up for kabaddi training on and off for nine months before filming Panga so she'd know what she'd be putting her actors through. She broke her ankle but emerged with a better understanding of the rigors of the game.
The climaxes of sports films are often predictable. So by the end of two-and-a-half, nearly three-hour-long runtimes, how do you make sure audiences are still invested? In Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, Milkha's told this may be his "zindagi ki aakhri race". The stakes are high, but it's the moments following his eventual win that are important to director Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra. Milkha sees his childhood self alongside him and something shifts – they're secure in the knowledge that they're running towards a better future and no longer away from a traumatic past. It's a moment of catharsis that's crucial to the genre, says Mehra.
Locking one of his main characters inside a closet during the climactic scene of Dangal was Tiwari's way of subverting audience expectations. "The moment you create that kind of distraction – the audience is no longer worried about whether Geeta's going to win or not, they're worried about how she's going to win when her father's not there and whether he will get to know that she's winning," he says. His source of inspiration? Another Aamir Khan film. In 1992, Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar made audiences wonder how Sanju was going to win that nail-biting climactic cycling race despite a fall off a cliff and a mid-race fistfight, setting the template for sports film climaxes all those years ago.