Director: Shaad Ali
Cast: Diljit Dosanjh, Taapsee Pannu, Angad Bedi, Satish Kaushik
Soorma, a dramatized version of ex-Indian field hockey captain Sandeep Singh’s life, is occasionally watchable despite its writer-director Shaad Ali. It has its moments because of Sandeep Singh – that is, the person and not the film. This tends to largely be the case defining Hindi cinema’s toxic relationship with sports biopics. For some reason, most Indian filmmakers misinterpret the meaning of ‘dramatization’. Many of these real-life tales are worthy enough on their own; the country’s sheer diversity and muddled grassroot systems ensure that we never fall short of hearing, or reading about, classic underdog sagas. Translating them to the screen, however, becomes a self-sabotaging exercise. The writers invariably integrate movie tropes into true stories – a strange collision of universes. This pre-packaged concoction of fact and fiction essentially ends up condescending on the original narrative instead of “spicing” it up.
For instance, the story of Sandeep Singh is incredible – here’s a man who not only became India’s most prolific goal scorer and a world-class drag flicker, but also recovered from a grave gunshot wound and waist-down paralysis to lead the national team again. It already has all the necessary elements. Why on earth would a storyteller want to manufacture more conflict?
I suppose an answer to that lies in the inherent nature of the beast. The genre itself is self-defeating. Athletes are thrilling to watch in action, but there’s nothing cinematic about what goes into the making of one – the hours of sweat, pre-dawn runs, teary nights of homesickness, crippling insecurities, performance anxiety and silent gym sessions aren’t very “filmable,” as compared to the physical highlights of their journey. Faced with the job of condensing 30 years of living, breathing and wanting into 3 hours, directors aren’t confident about conveying the monotonous passion of elite-level careers.
Hence, you generally see these otherwise-mundane shots stitched together into phases and musical montages. You see a Taapsee Pannu playing a wish-fulfillment version of Singh’s real wife – in contrast to the ‘ordinariness’ of a domestic partner giving up hockey and quietly nursing her husband back to health, here she is made into a heartbroken fellow athlete whose warped idea of tough love plays a crucial role in triggering his rehabilitation process. In other words, she is the worst girlfriend ever, a little reminiscent of Preity Zinta’s baffling character in Lakshya – ambitious women that pass off their insensitivity as martyrdom in order to “improve” the drifter-protagonists. In case we doubt her intentions, Pannu, a good actress stuck with a raw deal, is made to spend whole of the second half puffy-eyed, brooding and crying in gloomy UK weather.
You see an evil federation executive (“why help these handicaps?”) who, like the misguided Dangal coach, smirks and finds glee in just being a villain for the heck of it. You see a Johnny-Lever-style South Indian caricature shadowing the head coach (the inimitable Vijay Raaz) and literally repeating his words and serving as a human voiceover. You also see an abusive childhood coach who fills in for the hateful-parent stereotype. You see an aimless hero excelling at hockey only to impress his lady love, and you see a heroine wanting to see raw patriotism and pride driving his heart instead (cue three shots of fluttering national flag, two xenophobic India-Pakistan games, one random partition reference). Basically, you have all these ornamental figures of needless masala filmmaking diluting what is otherwise a singularly pure story of human resilience.
Diljit Dosanjh is much better than the film he occupies. He is sincere, wide-eyed and utterly invested in the ‘feeling’ of Sandeep Singh. There is a natural nobility about the Punjabi superstar’s face – it’s so disarming that he even manages to inject old-school sentimentality into the scene where Singh, who had promised to ask for Harpreet’s hand only once he wears the India jersey, returns to do just that. Am I the only one who thinks there’s something Ranbir Kapoor-ish about his face and mannerisms? Perhaps it’s the lingering Rocket Singh effect, but it’s uncanny.
Soorma, for a hockey film, curiously has some of the most shabbily choreographed sports sequences in recent times. You usually see filmmakers trying to professionalize the action with disorienting camera angles and snappy editing techniques. Nothing comes together here; it looks like a bunch of hastily trained actors hopping forward and passing around the ball at amateur speeds. Dosanjh’s drag flicks are passable, but the outfield play is awful – you can almost see the players virtually stop in their tracks to pull off a fancy trick. The slow motion makes it worse. And there’s an unhealthy dependence on the games’ sound design – the thwack and clunks are punctuated aggressively, as if to compensate for the geriatric ball.
This isn’t to say Soorma has nothing redeemable. Dosanjh and some sad-violin portions aside, Shaad Ali gets the cultural backdrop right. Hockey is a prestigious career option in Haryana, and everyone exists in sibling pairs. An early shot of two samosa shops sharing the same kitchen run by rival brothers is reflected in the primary narrative: Singh’s elder brother (a decent Angad Bedi) is a failed player, just like Harpreet’s brother, and Singh’s own father (Satish Kaushik), too, is second in command to his brother. The decision to ‘liberalize’ Sandeep’s wife, though, as mentioned earlier, only reiterates that the makers might not have found their source material progressive enough. The attempt to sync her with the mood of our times is deliberate, and therefore inauthentic. She is, after all, the one narrating this film – we all know the perils of an unreliable narrator. Ali is one. His last, OK Jaanu, a systematic dismemberment of mentor Mani Ratnam’s OK Kanmani, was positively ghastly. This is a step up, but still a far cry from his Saathiya heydays.
There’s no reason Soorma should have been an average movie. With the 2018 FIFA World Cup coming to an end, there has been a renewed interest in the ‘human’ aspect of professional athletes. Published first-person accounts of underdogs like Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku, Brazil’s Paulinho and Croatia’s Ivan Rakitic have gone viral – all stunning stories that lay the spiritual ground for the consumption of homegrown Sandeep Singh’s.
Yet, Soorma doesn’t rouse as much as it should. It doesn’t stop to feel its own heart beat. It tick-marks all the boxes and explores none. The goalposts are broadened – it drags home the same age-old clichés, and flicks our sensibilities by the wayside.