The sports drama genre has never been as alive as it is today in Tamil cinema. Apart from the recent hit Kanaa, the coming months will witness the release of Venilla Kabadi Kuzhu 2, the sequel to Suseenthiran's 2009 kabaddi film, and Jada, a football drama starring Kathir. Last year also witnessed the much-loved sport of carom being used as a metaphor in Vetrimaaran's Vada Chennai. Add these to older films such as the two parts of Chennai 600028, Madras, Jeeva, Ghilli, Eeti, Badri, Irudhi Suttru, Dhoni etc and we notice the same set of sports repeating within the genre. Considering how Tamil Nadu has produced world-class talents in sports such as tennis, squash, chess, motor racing, and badminton, do our films under-represent sports that bring in the glory? Or does the film business have a way of filtering out sports that are not deemed popular enough for the Tamil audience?
Arunraja Kamaraj, who wrote and directed Kanaa, a sports drama about a small-town female cricketer making it to the Indian national team, feels it is more difficult for a sports film to be made with a squash or tennis setting. "Even when I was writing Kanaa, about a sport as popular as cricket, there were still aspects of it that needed to be re-written for it to be understood by everyone. For instance, there's a scene in the film where the ball hits the wicketkeeper's helmet and 5 runs are awarded. We needed to explain why using dialogue in the form of commentary for the older and female audiences to get it. We cannot assume everyone knows the sport as well as you or me. So can you imagine how much explaining needs to be done when you're making a drama about tennis or squash?"
But producer and film historian G. Dhananjayan feels it's just a matter of time before we witness films based on such sports. "The sport does not really matter. It is the emotional connection that draws us to such a film. So if I were to get a well-written script that is moving and relatable, why would it matter if the protagonist is playing tennis or squash", he asks.
Sticking to rules of the game
But shouldn't the sport itself needs to have an element of being viewer-friendly? Is it possible to weave in as many dramatic situations to a game of golf as one can with cricket? "Surely," says Kamaraj. "I didn't know anything about mud wrestling before I watched Dangal," he points out. "But by the climax scene, I understood the basic points system and rules of the sport. In fact, we don't even realize that we have learned so much about it as we watch that film. That is the magic of Dangal."
The trick, according to him, is, to be honest about the sport. "I don't think I could have written Kanaa without knowing and loving cricket. Apart from the details of the sport, one can't afford to break the logic of the game just for the sake of drama. It is not just about heroism alone. In the climax of Kanaa, there is a scene where Aishwarya's character picks up a hat-trick. But a lot of thought has gone in to back that scene with logic. When someone who knows cricket watches that scene, they will easily be able to draw parallels between Aishwarya and the Sri Lankan spin bowler Ajanta Mendis. She has even copied the same bowling action. So what makes that scene seem plausible is our memory of Ajanta Mendis and how he was considered a mystery bowler…much like Aishwarya is in the movie."
Re-iterating the importance of sticking to the rules of the sport to keep the film truthful, Dhananjayan recalls a recent cop film which didn't bother with the basic details of the profession. "It showed the police officer getting directly promoted to the post of DSP after showing him in an inspector-level post. One should not write a police film without understanding its hierarchy structure. It is the same with sports film. You can't change the sport for the sake of the script."
Making it "watchable"
Another aspect that goes into the making of a sports film is the process of converting the emotional beats of a sport into film…much like converting a novel into cinema. "Not all sports are equally visual to be made into cinema," feels Dhananjayan. "Even if you take golf, the sport itself might not present you with as many twists as cricket or football, but the context and the characters can make it just as thrilling. Even women's cricket in Kanaa or boxing in our film Irudhi Suttru were considered niche sports before those films got made. "
Talking about the actual process of shooting the sports film, Arunraja explains how his intention was to make Kanaa feel like one was watching cricket on television. "We have repeated the same camera angles used in actual cricket telecasts. Apart from one or two shots, we didn't place any cameras within the cricket ground. All we did was keep cameras outside the ground and zoomed in to the action…even for close-ups. Such techniques go a long way in erasing that filmy feeling."
An upper-class sport
But isn't there the added problem of how tennis, squash, billiards, and racing are considered upper-class sports? Can such a film be termed relatable to the general audience? "This is the reality of such sports," says Dhanajayan. "These sports are not accessible to a majority of the film-viewing audience. So we need to find a link to make the connection. Even if it is tennis, the film will connect if it's about a family and the sacrifices of its members to make sure their son or daughter play the sport. But when the hero/heroine is shown to be rich and powerful, there is a disconnect. That's because the sport film is by definition the story of the underdog. It's not very easy for the audience to project that spirit when the protagonist is rich enough to get ahead, even if he fails a few times."
Until someone writes a sports film with such considerations, it will remain the rich villains who are going to be shown as playing tennis, squash or billiards. "In our movies, these sports have become symbols of privilege and power," adds Arunraja. "Even so, they are shown as pastimes and not really a sport. But I'm sure there are writers out there who can change that in the coming years."