I put up my non-spoiler review up right after I watched it, but I wanted to kind of let the film percolate before I attempted my detailed summary/spoiler review. Which might mean that a miss a scene here or there, but I should have a better idea of the overall message of the film. Oh, and I let it percolate too long (or not long enough?) so this is going to be too long and end up split in two parts.
There’s a slang phrase that comes up in American pop culture articles sometimes, “When are we going to get to the fireworks factory?” I think it’s a Simpson‘s reference (I never watched), but it’s a useful phrase for whenever you feel like the trip is just dragging out and you are never going to get to the exciting part. That’s what much of this movie felt like, the boring slow part that feels like it will never end when all you want is to get to the fireworks.
Which is kind of the point, because the story it is telling is of Dhoni feeling like that too, like his life was never going to start, like every chance was passing him by, and finding something inside him to keep him going through all that. At least, I think that was the point.
The message of the film is a little hard to find, because it is a combination of a sincere attempt to explain a life story and shameless fan service. The first scene of the opening is the shameless fan service part of it. And then the next scene is sincere.
The first scene is the actual footage of the 2011 World Cup match (much coverage of how the filmmakers paid for the real footage). And then we pull back to see Sushant watching it in the locker room. He walks over to the wall, pulls off his shirt, and grabs a jersey. The audience in my theater starts to cheer and whistle, I think it is because we get to see Sushant’s naked torso (he really really beefed up for this role!), but then I realize it’s just for the Dhoni #7 jersey.
(#7 jersey not so much, but this I would cheer for!)
Also, do the Cricket players really hang out in the luxury locker room watching the game on TV? I’m used to baseball and football, where the players usually sit on the sidelines and be there for their friends who are playing. This seems awfully unsupportive, to just relax and sit back and watch the big screen in comfort instead of being out there cheering them on. Oh, and then Sushant wonders through the locker room to poke his head into the other room and calmly say that he is changing the batting order and going out next if the current player gets out. I am assuming this is all exactly as it really occurred and many people in the audience will remember every detail of the game and exactly how it went down?
Sushant goes out, all strapped up and helmeted, and the crowd roars!!!! And cut to 1981 in Ranchi in, as the subtitles put it “Bihar (then)”. Because now it is in the new state of Jharkhand, and there must have been so much discussion over how to handle all the state level games and so on and so on in the script considering the name of the state changed since then!
Anyway, in Ranchi, Anupam Kher in a terrible terrible wig is sitting in a hospitable waiting room with his arm around a tiny little girl. He glances over at another man who is sitting with his arm around 3 boys and holds his daughter a little closer. And then the doctor comes out announces the boys’ father finally has a little girl!!! They all cheer!!! And then a nurse comes out and says that Anupam has a boy! He is also happy! Now, isn’t that a nice “save the girl child” message? Dhoni’s family was happy to have a son, but they made sure to show another family with 3 boys who were all thrilled to finally have a girl.
8 years later, there’s Kumud Mishra! Fulfilling his obligation of being in every movie of 2016! He’s walking around on a cricket field (pitch?) complaining about how dry it is with no grass, how can the children play on this? He calls for the water engineer, and out comes Anupam Kher! In another terrible wig! He explains that he can’t water the field now, because the apartment buildings are using the water. But he can water it at 11 at night, no one will be using it then. Kumud asks if that won’t be a problem, since Anupam works the early shift now and has to be up at 7. Anupam says no, no problem.
Meanwhile, at school, there’s Rajesh Sharma! Who was also in Azhar! He’s fighting with a mother who wants to pull her son off the school cricket team so he has more time to study for exams. He tries to argue that exams are two months away, and the mother replies yes, exactly! Only 2 months!
Rajesh Sharma wanders off, depressed, looking for a new wicket keeper. And he spots lil’ Dhoni! Being an awesome goalkeeper in soccer practice. He sends a kid to go talk to Dhoni and ask if he wants to join the Cricket team. The kid comes back to tell him that Dhoni wasn’t interested.
That night, lil’ Dhoni and lil’ Bhoomika, his older sister, are goofing off at home. Dhoni is playing with a ball while Bhoomika flips through magazines. And then the see Anupam riding his bicycle home and immediately pull out their school books and start studying. Anupam comes in and softly confirms with their nice mother that they only started studying when he arrived. But he doesn’t yell at them or anything, or even seem really disappointed, just quietly accepting that they are kids and it’s what kids do.
That night, the alarm goes off at 11, and Anupam gets out of bed. His wife follows him to the door and wishes him well as he goes off with his scarf around his head. And Anupam goes to stand in the middle of the cricket field next to their house, as the lights turn on. And child Dhoni wakes up and goes to stand on the balcony and sees his father sacrificing and doing what he has to for the good of the community, working long hours without thanks or notice.
See, that’s the message of the movie. The deep message, under all the crowd service. That it’s not about winning the World Cup while thousands cheer. It’s about working and working and working, even when it feels like you aren’t going anywhere, when it feels like it doesn’t matter, when no one is noticing. Just because there is a nobility in doing what your best without concern for applause or honor. Dhoni doesn’t play cricket because he loves the game or he is good at it or he wants the glory. He plays cricket because it is connected with this moment, with waking up in the middle of the night and suddenly waking up to what it means to be responsible, to be an adult, to be a “hero”.
Which is why the next day when Rajesh Sharma asks him again to join the school team, this time he says yes. And when he asks his father that night if he can join practices, he promises to do two hours of homework after two hours of practice every night, and means it. No more shortcuts or play time, he has something worth giving his all for now.
Although he still wants to have fun with it. Rajesh Sharma, the coach, insists that he focus on catching for now, no touching the bat! Even though lil’ Dhoni keeps begging him. I’m guessing this is an inside joke? That Dhoni is known for loving to hit the ball or something?
Anyway, he finally gets his chance when Rajesh is stuck buying fish with his wife while practice is supposed to start, and the big boys let him play with them. I kept thinking this would be a meaningful scene, that he was going to get injured or get in trouble with the coach or something. But it’s really just a thing that happened, his coach was stuck buying fish and the big boys let Dhoni play with them and cheer him own. Really, it was just a time when everyone was nice and helped him as much as he could.
That’s the other part of the message of the movie. If you keep your expectations low and work as hard as you can and are grateful for every kindness shown you and every good thing that happens, then people will try to help you on your way. Through out the film, people care about Dhoni. They see his talent and, more than that, they see his hard work and they want to reward it
Even his own family cares about him. Not just in the usual “study hard, I’m sacrificing for your school fees, I will stay up all night if you are sick” kind of way that most families care for each other. But in the little things, like his mother not being able to turn him down when he begs for a Sachin poster to put in his room or his father going along with the cricket practice and all the other sports, even though his best judgement tells him that time should be spent on homework. Or the way his big sister is his sounding board for every decision and goes to his parents on his behalf all the time. He’s just such a good kid who wants so little, people can’t resist giving him things.
Even his coach and his school! When he’s 14, his coach finally lets him go in as an opening batsman instead of a closing one. Well, actually he lets him go in because Dhoni asks the two scheduled opening batsman if he can have their slot and they can’t turn him down. And once Dhoni starts to hit the ball, the local announcers start getting happy for him! And then the local kids start pouring onto the field! And the local sports shop owner shuts his shop to run to the field! And finally, the teachers at the school decide to close early so all the kids can run to watch.
It seems a little silly (not least because this is the bit with the absolute worst CGI, Sushant’s face slapped onto a 14 year old’s body), but I think it was getting at something a little bigger. The idea that talent and sports can bring everyone together, can build a community, or strengthen a community. The sports field by Dhoni’s house isn’t just a sports field, it’s a place that can bring together media (the announcers), professionals (the coach), businessman (the store owner), the authorities (the teachers), and the people (the students) all in one moment of joy and excitement provided by a player like Dhoni who sacrifices all he has for them. Dhoni isn’t a Cricket player because he is selfish, he is a player because he is self-sacrificing.
(Really very disturbing CGI)
That’s a message that comes over and over again, as he slowly moves towards his ultimate triumph, years down the road at this point. First when he is offered a space in an office league, but it means finishing his exams half an hour early, dashing for the train, playing, and then falling asleep on the way home while the rest of the team celebrates. Then again when he plays far into the night learning tricks and shots from his teammates. And scraping the money together to buy his own supplies, even though the local sport shop owner keeps trying to talk his suppliers into sponsoring him.
And, finally, it all pays off, at least a little bit. Kumud arranges for him to get a place on his company’s team, with a stipend and equipment supplied. Of course he goes to Anupam first to run it by him. Which means Anupam gets to break the news to Sushant (oh right, Sushant is playing the main character by now). Sushant is called home from the field and comes home asking why they wanted to see him. His family plays it straight, pretending they are just sitting around having a normal evening, Dhoni accepts it and goes into the other room, and then pops out to look at the duffel bag of supplies sitting on the counter, while his father explains that he is getting a higher paying place on a company team, and they have finally bought him his first full kit too.
And, happy song! Which I’m not putting in this post because I can’t find it online! Again, I was waiting for something to go terribly wrong. But no, it’s just about being happy. Sushant gets his first motorcycle, he enjoys playing with his new team and hanging out with his friends, the only downside is when he catches one of his best friends drinking and yells at him. What is up with that? Is Dhoni like the head of an anti-alcohol campaign in real life or something? Is there a famous story about a friend of his dying? Why this random anti-drinking PSA that never really pays off in the rest of the narrative?
But every little step forward comes with a disappointment. First, Sushant goes to the state championships. That’s not the disappointment, the disappointment is that it is a blow out loss, because the other team has Yuvraj Singh on it. The handle this bit nicely, Sushant’s main reaction is just to be excited at seeing the talent in someone else, at the beauty of the achievement. And there is one little moment when Sushant and his friends walk across the court towards their cars and pass Yuvraj going the other way. All his friends stop to stare, but Sushant keeps going, and finally looks back at Yuvraj on the other side of the court, his mirror image, going in the opposite direction.
That’s the beginning of another phase in Sushant/Dhoni’s career in this movie. First it was the constant practice and hard work that resulted in slow incremental improvements. But now there is that sense of being stuck in neutral while everyone else zooms past. He loses the state game, and he takes it calmly, going home and sleeping for hours, until his friends finally wake him up and demand to hear the stories. But then the “under 19” picks are announced, and he isn’t on the list. Everyone else is going on to the next level, and he is stuck here, playing in the smaller local leagues, keeping up his practice and his efforts but with no real promise of reward.
The real heartbreak is when he misses his chance by minutes. It’s reported in the paper that he is part of a special cup team (I don’t understand it entirely, but it sounds like it isn’t the official Indian team, but a sort of one off tournament which would still garner him national attention). His old coach happens to see the paper, rushes to talk to his sports store owner friend, and then hurries to Sushant’s apartment to confirm that he never got his invitation letter! Because he missed the letter, he now has just hours to get all the way to Calcutta and make the flight. They decide to ask advice from Kumud Mishra, but he is stuck in a meeting. They wait outside his office as the minutes tick by, and when he finally comes out, it’s too late for any flight or train. The only option is by car. The group scatters to grab cash from the register at the store, the little tin boxes in their kitchens, everywhere, and beg a car from the garage to drive to Calcutta through the night. They take turns on the way, they bounce over bad roads, they finally get to the airport and say their good-byes, only to learn, the flight took off half an hour ago. Sushant missed his chance. Even with all his efforts, and the efforts of everyone else, he didn’t get it. Sushant asks for just a moment to himself, and walks off to stand behind a pillar and breath. Sushant plays this moment so well, he stays in the character of someone who never really shows emotion, he is always focused and calm, but still manages to reveal his heartbreak in just little eye twitches and a wobbly mouth.
This is also when I start to think about the American spots system. It’s got its own problems, but different problems. Most sports have a college league that is the first step on your route to success. At age 19 (which I think is where Dhoni is at this point) he would be playing for a college team, not waiting around for one chance and already slipping back if he misses it. Of course, on the other hand, he would be wasting prime time in his career playing for a school that doesn’t pay him or take responsibilities for his lifelong injuries or any of that stuff. It’s not a better system, it may even be a worse system, but at least there are more incremental rewards, just getting a college scholarship can be a success, instead of being stuck waiting around forever and ever for the one chance in a million.
That’s what Sushant is stuck with now, does he give up on his dream and move on to a new goal, or does he keep giving it 100% and believe it will come true despite all the setbacks? The thing that is really remarkable about Dhoni’s story, as told here, is that he choices both. He is offered a job with the Railways, to fulfill their sports quotient. He has to leave his home and friends, but it’s a really good job, it’s what his father always dreamed of for him. And the railway head in charge is excited to have him, insisting on putting him through his paces and pitching to him directly to see how he hits, and then putting him in a “special” category, guaranteed job no matter what, just based on how good he will be on their Cricket team. Sushant’s family is thrilled, only his sister (Bhoomika Chawla, who I LOVE) seems to sense his regret and sense that he might be meant for something bigger than this.
(I know I should like Tere Naam better, but somehow silly little Run just wins me over)
And so Sushant moves into a tiny house with 4 other young workers, spends all day running between platforms at the railway station, and all evening practicing cricket, back and forth and back and forth like an automaton. This is supposed to be the big emotional growth part for the character, and Neeraj Panday resorts to a little magical realism to push it a long. By the way, the directing has been nice and workmanlike through this whole thing. There’s some nice visuals, as I mentioned that shot of Anupam watering the field is really lovely, but mostly it’s about clarity. Without a lot of time stamps or explanations for who people are or what is happening, I was able to follow along through years and years of Dhoni’s life.
And this is the turning point, I saw an interview somewhere saying that they put the interval late in this movie because they wanted it at an important moment. And what they call an “important moment” tells you everything about the priorities of this film. It’s not a big match or anything like that. It’s a choice to change himself and his own life, and faith that success will follow.
Sushant has been running and running all day at work and all night at practice. And when he stays still, it’s even worse, he lies (lays?) on the floor of his room and stares at the ceiling. Or, even worse, he quietly gets up to make tea while they watch his age mate Yuvraj Singh play on the India team while he is stuck watching it on TV in the middle of nowhere in a tiny shared bungalow. And in the middle of all this, he has to go home for Bhoomika’s wedding, shown in quick flashes, but with a moment when he holds her that feels like he is saying good-bye to the only person who seemed to understand him. It all culminates when he stands still on a crowded platform as the crowd rushes past him, and screams. Only, no one stops or looks, so I’m thinking it’s a little magical realism here. He’s not really screaming, he’s screaming on the inside.
It gets a little better, just enough to shake him out of the depression, when the head of the railways, the one who has been protecting him, finds him sitting on a bench in the station looking at nothing. His boss asks what he’s doing, and Sushant explains that his roommates are working a different shift, if he goes home no one will be there, so he might as well stay here and do nothing as go home and do nothing. His boss listens, and tells him to just stop worrying about it. Do what he wants to do. Trust the boss to take care of the rest. Just focus on the game.
It’s an interesting message, looking at it from the perspective of Sushant’s co-workers I might feel that this is a little unfair. But then on the other hand, Sushant’s really not the same as the other workers. He has a little extra, he is special. And even being willing to try at this menial job is kind of remarkable for someone like him. Like Einstein working at the patent office. And, on the other hand, it’s kind of a sin that someone with his talent and potential is being forced to waste it on a day job.
This is the beginning of the Dhoni-sports-mystic phase. It’s not just that he dedicates himself to pursuing sport, it’s that he does it in a kind of intense spiritual way. Anything that might improve his gain, hone his skills, he will pursue, and he doesn’t care about anything else. I’m assuming this is also based on real life? That he started joining tennis tournaments and playing other sports obsessively? And that he would take off for weeks or months at a time, chasing down interesting tournaments being played all over the country? And it’s also this period when he starts appearing like a mystic more and more. The long hair, the far-seeing eyes, the calm face, all of that.
(Sushant almost pulls it off, but really, it is mostly ridiculous hair)
Which all leads up to his vision, the vision that takes us into the intermission. He’s in trouble at his job. He’s been taking off too much time to play Cricket, even his supportive boss can’t protect him any more. He could lose his position. His roommates are worried about him too, which lets him play a little joke on them when he pretends to be talking on a broken phone. But mostly, life is just really sucky and it can’t keep going this way. He has to hold on to this job. Or, does he? That’s where the vision comes from. He sits on the same bench in the same station and suddenly hears a train coming. He looks up, and it’s an unmanned train. It arrives and stops in front of him and he hears a crowd shouting from inside, faintly, the sound of a whole stadium saying “Dhoni! Dhoni! Dhoni!” He stands up and runs and jumps on the train as it pulls out of the station! He sees his future, and he is going to do whatever it takes to chase after it! INTERVAL!!!!