We have had a history of biopics made in Bollywood that more or less put their subjects on a pedestal. Biopics made in our country, remain one-dimensional so that, perhaps, the future generations grasp them as the gospel truth, with little room for any doubt. But, a hero without imperfections can be problematic.
The Neeraj Pandey-directed M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story is a biographical film that profiles the life of Indian cricketer Mahendra Singh Dhoni, and aims to make him seem like a demi-god.
Dhoni has been the most successful captain in the history of Indian cricket, but all the inconclusive controversies and unresolved issues of his career — including match-fixing allegations — still remain debatable. And the film doesn’t even attempt to answer any of these questions; all it does in its too long a narrative is to have a one-sided version that eulogises him all the way.
The film marks the rise of a young schoolboy M.S. Dhoni or Mahi (Sushant Singh Rajput) in Ranchi Jharkhand, who gets noticed by sports coach (Rajesh Sharma) as a goalkeeper.
The first half of the film is devoted to his struggling days in Ranchi when Mahi is seen liking every game, be it badminton, tennis but he loves football. He doesn’t have much interest in cricket, and so, when he is called by his coach to practise wicket-keeping after school, he doesn’t seem to be too happy. He is also made to practise only “keeping” techniques. On his coach’s insistence, he takes up cricket and, in a while, turns into a district-level player.
Shortly, he falls in love with the game, and prefers all the practice sessions to books. Gradually, he shines, both as a keeper and a striker par excellence as he gets to play many matches, much to his father Paan Singh’s (Anupam Kher) disappointment. Paan Singh — a junior management employee with an engineering firm — and his middle-class values don’t look beyond a “stable job” in a government organisation for Mahi, and therefore, he believes that “a career in sports doesn’t last long.” It’s Mahi’s mother who is supportive of his special talent for cricket. His sister (Bhumika Chawla) too, is a caring, encouraging sibling.
Mahi is also fortunate to have a bunch of good-hearted friends who would do anything to back him, and even help him monetarily. Mahi’s talent goes on to win him many hearts, both on and off the field, as he scores runs, and crowds gather to see him bat.
But like any other common man, he too has to work hard to balance studies and his passion for the game — only to strive hard and bag himself a government job. He fulfils his parents’ dream and joins the Railways. After working briefly for a couple of years as a railway guard, he realises that his job is drudgery, and that under no circumstances would he be able to make a career in cricket if he were to remain in his job.
Pandey and Dilip Jha’s screenplay looks at all the dreams and aspirations of unadventurous conservative middle-level Indians with the right tenor, and the milieu looks perfect with all the symbols and bits and pieces lending the most authentic setting to the proceedings. Be it Mahi’s small “quarter”, or his parents most basic no-frills home, or even the conversation within the family — all look straight out of any small-town Indian middle-income group’s ordinary lives.
The second half deals with his career and his rise as a full-time ace cricketer; and all the trappings that come with stardom; the ups and downs he sees with his team.
A lot of screen time is also devoted to his love life — first with Priyanka Jha (Disha Patani), and later with Sakshi (Kiara Advani). Both the girls may have been important in his life, but don’t add much heft to the actions.
Biographical sketches of living heroes who are still active in their profession are rare, and with the kind of stimulatingly provocative life of a “hero” like Dhoni who’s mired in many disputes, this could have been a cheeky one.
This is the kind of film that had immense potential to be one of the “firsts” in Bollywood’s history to come out with the truth as no other film has so far. But in all its running 190 minutes of Dhoni’s life history, MSD doesn’t exactly round its way to a satisfying conclusion, leaving the film feeling curiously unfinished.
It is, thus, decidedly far from phenomenal. Too sugary and laced with laudatory moments, it suffers from an overdose of a glorious path of a cricket legend’s life.
After being fed with a treat that has so much of his “honesty” and “fairness” one is further stumped for the film to abruptly end. It is akin to having too much food without developing any taste for it. It’s a vanilla look at a life that could’ve been rivetingly related.
One doesn’t truly feel as if one is inside the head and heart of a cricket player. The overwhelming qualities of Mahi’s issues don’t form the emotional crux of the story.
Instead, the entire film lacks the necessary connective moments that could turn a promising yet potentially undernourished account into a three-dimensional whole. After a while, the structure is too linear in the chronological timeline to hold any interest.
Both Patani and Advani have miniscule roles, but to be fair, Patani as Priyanka displays her alluring appeal. Her cute impish quality has a charm that one cannot ignore.
As a director, Pandey goes for mood and feel rather than narrative momentum, and falters unapologetically, making his actors look like cardboard characters.
The only thing that rings true are exchanges between actors. Sushant Singh Rajput tries hard as an actor to play Dhoni the way he believes, Dhoni should be.
Focusing only on, first, the physicality of the character, and later, on his own charm, Rajput’s limitations as an actor are too easy to point out; by the time the film reaches its lonesome conclusion, the resonances are tiresomely repetitive and lacklustre.
The writer is a film critic and has been reviewing films for over 15 years. He also writes on music, art and culture, and other human interest stories.
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