Let’s be honest. One was never going to get a complex and multi-layered portrait of India’s greatest ever cricket captain when the icon himself was involved with the film. Nevertheless, Neeraj Pandey still does manage to create some winning, playing-to-the-gallery moments, aided immensely by a more-than-able performance by his leading man.
Almost all Indian biopics are plagued with the way they treat their subjects, especially those where family members or close associates are involved. What has emerged practically every time are films that center around unidimensional too-good-to-be-true characters who only have shades of white of them and little else. Treating them as normal flesh and blood human beings along with their flaws and vulnerabilities is a rarity. Little wonder then our biopics come nowhere in the range of how Hollywood treats a Ray or The Aviator, just to name two films. These movies, based on Ray Charles and Howard Hughes respectively, create multi-dimensional, fascinating characters with their frailties, failures and complexes along with their triumphs and make for rich cinematic viewing. In that sense M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story too largely adheres to our rules of eulogizing our idols, who overcome all obstacles ever so easily, rather than looking at them objectively.
That said, the film has an extremely engaging first half, which begins with India’s 2011 World Cup victory chase. The Indian captain, Dhoni (Sushant Singh Rajput), decides to promote himself in the batting order. As he steps out to play one of his finest innings, the film goes into flashback mode. It takes us literally to the beginning to Dhoni’s birth, his growing up years in Ranchi, his total frustration at being stuck in a dead-end ticket collector’s job in the railways. These portions, making up the first half of the film, provide the film with some of its best sequences. Pandey draws us into the film as he beautifully creates the small town milieu of the 1980s and 90s, inducing moments that are truly heartwarming and has us totally rooting for his protagonist. This bit also works as we see Dhoni’s odd failure and feel his dissatisfaction at being unable to break out of his dull government job and fulfill his immense talent as a cricketer. Dhoni’s journey to being chosen for the Indian cricket team, representing the struggles of a small town boy to make it big on the National scene, is the best part of the film, which, sadly, falters thereafter.
The film has little to say once the underdog, Dhoni, works his way into the Indian cricket team. A montage of his cricketing high points and two clunky ‘filmi’ romances later, we come back to the World Cup innings and the final victory shot. Here’s where the film slides as it steers clear of any controversies or grey areas to layer the film. Even when there is talk about Dhoni wanting three players out of the team, their names are beeped out. It is understandable that Pandey’s hands were probably tied up here but, unfortunately, it does tell on the film and its running time of over three hours. What’s more, the film fails to give us any insight into the man who went on to become the finest skipper the game of cricket has seen in India. His way of thinking, his shrewd and often unorthodox cricketing brain, his mastering the ability to keep cool in the tensest of situations, his amazing leadership qualities – the film looks at none of these and that is its biggest failure. Even his batting is just shown as spectacular hitting and little else. Dhoni, in real life, was quite the master of building his innings – if the situation called for it – before going berserk. The other big weakness of the script is to give a proper build up to what it considers Dhoni’s greatest cricketing moment, the 2011 World Cup win. This weakens the impact and the intended emotional wallop of the climactic final shot and what the World Cup triumph meant not just to the entire country, but to Dhoni as well.
Pandey had already won part of his battle with his choice of subject combining religion (cricket is a religion in India), patriotism (playing for one’s country) and and an idol (Dhoni), still active. Sushant Singh Rajput goes on to help him win a great deal of the war with his winning act. The pressure on playing Dhoni must have been immense with sky-high expectations and it is to his credit he doesn’t disappoint. He is more than credible creating a character you are deeply involved with and you can’t help but marvel at his body language and little mannerisms, which he gets spot on without it looking like mere mimicry. The line was thin and Rajput pulls it off beautifully. The supporting players, particularly Dhoni’s family, friends and support group, shine brightly. They are all extremely well cast, ring true and give the film some of its finest stirring moments. It is a joy to watch them following Dhoni’s cricketing career down the years faithfully and in particular, Rajesh Sharma, as his early mentor, is genuinely memorable. However, the two love stories and the girlfriends (Disha Patani, Kiara Advani) are the weak points of the film but blame that on the treatment.
Technically in spite of some poor VFX work, one has to commend Sudheer Palsane’s unobtrusive yet fine camerawork that complements the story perfectly without resorting to typical in-your-face flourishes. The on-location shooting in some truly constricted locations is well handled aided further by Debasish Mishra’s astute sound design. Leave alone the little sounds of small town India, Mishra credibly created the entire ambience of the crowds at the various matches in the sound studio with 150 people doubling up for thousands! The songs, though, are a weak point with none of them truly hummable, while the background music is pretty ineffective as well.
No doubt having its strong moments and enough crowd-pleasing sequences, M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story still finally falls short of being there, unable to convincingly knock it out of the park. More importantly though, the wait for that perfect Indian biopic, shorn of all righteousness and hero worship, still continues…
Hindi, Biopic, Sports, Drama, Color