Okay, the first half felt like it had a very clear and defined message about working hard and pursuing excellence for its own sake, with no hope of reward. And then the second half just felt all meh and mushy. And it’s when the romance was suddenly shoved in with seemingly little connection to the rest of the film. (first half summary here)
In the first half of the film, we saw Dhoni from birth through his first job at the railways. He fell in love with Cricket as a small child and dedicated himself to it, while still keeping up with his schoolwork. He managed to pass his exams and still play on the local leagues, but he was passed over again and again for national honors while his agemates moved forward. Finally, he was offered a good job with the railways in return for playing for their team. But it also meant he was stuck in a safe secure life that seemed to be going no where, working all day, practicing all night, and never getting anywhere. Eventually he seemed to reach a moment of transformation, deciding to simply pursue his interests with no goal beyond personal improvement. And only after he reaches that point, does he have a vision of the future, an unmanned train arriving on the track in front of him, with the sound of a crowd chanting his name.
And, INTERVAL!!! And now, we’re back! I think we open up with his conversation with his father? He’s back home, and he breaks the news to his Dad that he’s not going back to the railway job. Anupam plays this scene so well (despite another terrible wig). He isn’t angry or disappointed, he is just confused. His son has everything that Anupam ever dreamed of for him, a good job with security and a chance for promotion. And now he is throwing it away? What more could possible be out there, what could he be missing in his life?
This isn’t the kind of conversation you usually see in a sports film. At least, not the American sports films I’m used to. They are usually about dedication and overcoming adversity. But this is something else, this is about following your bliss, your destiny, your almost spiritual relationship to a task. It felt more like a conversation you would usually see in a movie about a great artist, or musician, or scientist. Which fits with where Sushant is at this point in the movie. He has gone on a spiritual quest, traveling the world to improve his game, it’s a calling for him, something that he feels like he HAS to do.
But he’s not following his bliss frivolously. I had a really hard time with, for instance, Tamasha, which seemed to give a lesson that art for art’s sake is enough. Sure, art for art’s sake is great. But not if it is just handed to you. Not if you are just doing it to make yourself happy, with no bigger sense of how it might help the world. But here, Dhoni has been working for years and years at his dream. He has saved his money and made his own way, and now he has no duties or responsibilities tying him down and he has earned the right to do what he wants with the rest of his life. And what he wants to do is play Cricket. However and wherever he can.
Really, it’s all about Sushant being passive and calm and not letting himself really care about anything at all, just living in the moment. And she let’s him get away with it, just drift in and out of her life, call her on the phone when he feels like it, never talk about the future or introduce her to his family or anything. It comes to a head right before he leaves for a tournament in Pakistan. They are sitting on a deserted cliff side (kind of looks like where Raj told Taani he loves her in Rab Ne) looking out over the city. She gently starts nudging him about the future, about spending their lives together. Sushant looks disturbed, and doesn’t really have a response, fumbling to talk about how he has to focus on his game right now and can’t really think about anything else. Finally, she finishes the conversation herself, letting him off the hook by simply saying that she wants to be sure they have time. And he agrees, yes, he can promise that they have lots of time to figure all of this out. I immediately start thinking “Danger! Danger!” It’s like saying it’s your last day before retirement, or a close up of a photo of your kids, guaranteed sign of a character in danger!
Sushant goes to Pakistan, and he decides he wants to call her, maybe he actually does feel something. His phone is out of data, so he goes down to the hotel lobby to buy more and brushes past a store owner talking outside his store. The owner recognizes Sushant and immediately insists on him going in and using the phone in his store. Maybe because of this surprise moment of human contact and goodness, Sushant is a little more open when he finally gets through. His girlfriend (Okay, I’m sick of calling her “Sushant’s girlfriend”. It’s Disha Patani, or, as she is known in real life, “Tiger’s girlfriend”) hints around about Valentine’s Day, but is pretty casual and laughing about Sushant’s clear surprise and disinterest in doing anything romantic.
(I don’t understand the storyline of this song at all. How much time is passing? Did they know each other before? How does this make any sense at all?)
She is still willing to get him something and asks what he wants. And, song! Sushant gets something in the market in Pakistan, surrounded by security (see! I know Dishoom was inaccurate! India’s star player would never have been allowed to wander around unprotected!), and Disha goes to a jewelry store to buy Sushant the watch he asked for (another subtle class thing, Disha automatically goes to by the most expensive fancy gift possible, Sushant goes to the market). And then on the way home, her car is hit by a truck! WHAM!!!!
Now, as I talked about a little in my non-spoiler review, I thought this bit was completely made up. That they just wanted some kind of obstacle in the second half, but couldn’t use his wife because she would come later, so they just invented some random romance and then end it in a nice no-fault way. But, no!!!! Now articles are saying this really was based on a true story! He had a girlfriend back then, and she was killed in a car accident while he was out of the country. That’s terrible!
But the fact that it’s real, and no one knew about it, makes me look at this a little differently. Especially the “no one knew about it” part. Because with Dhoni being that famous, for this relationship to be unknown would mean that it was really barely a relationship. That it was just a pleasant small part of his life with phone calls and secret meetings. That he really did count on having more time with her, on slowly growing their relationship into something more serious, but hadn’t quite gotten there yet. It’s a particular kind of tragedy, not so much what they lost as what they never got the chance ot have.
And Sushant handles the reaction to it all perfectly. He had given her his friend’s phone number before he left the country, in case she had to get in touch with him. Now, he is back in India and hasn’t been able to reach her for days. He gets that same friend to reach out to a back-up number Disha gave him, and as soon as he lands in India is eager to learn what he found out. He’s riding in the back seat of his friend’s car, on the way back to his parents’ place, and calling his friend on his cell phone. The friend tries not to say anything over the phone, to put him off until they can talk face to face, but Dhoni insists, and he learns over the phone that Disha died on Valentine’s. He seems calm at first, asks his friends to pull over the car, but then gets more upset when they resist, pointing out that he will be home soon. They finally pull over and he jumps out and runs along the side of the road until he is out of sight. It’s very similar to his reaction in the first half when he missed his plane and his big chance. He has to get away from everyone before he can reveal his true reaction. And it’s a great dramatic scene for Sushant, and it’s filmed in a really interesting way, with the cars still zooming by as he lies (lays?) half concealed in the grass. Only problem is, it keeps changing perspectives and there is a clear difference in the setting depending on perspective. From one angle, Sushant is along the side of the highway, from the other he’s in the median strip in the middle.
But, just as he didn’t let his disappointment over his game stop him from happily talking to a girl on the plane, he doesn’t let his disappointment over that girl’s death stop him from focusing on his game. And, Cricket! And also, ads! Which always make me think of Rocky II. My friend I saw this with was thinking this was clever product placement and helped the budget. But I am wondering if these are famous ads? Like, it is part of the audience getting lost in this version of Dhoni’s life by seeing Sushant re-create them? Oh, and most importantly, HE CUTS HIS HAIR!!!! FINALLY!!!!!! Both Sushant and Dhoni in real life just look SO MUCH BETTER with short hair.
(SO MUCH BETTER!!!!)
And, maybe because of the hair or his broken heart, or just because of the years and years of struggle and practice, he goes from triumph to triumph, including being made team captain. And immediately suggesting that they remove 3 of their oldest players and restructure the team around fielding. Oh, and buying a LOT of motorcycles.
And with his whole life in order, he gets a second chance at love too. Which is ADORABLE. I thought nothing could be cuter than his meet cute with Disha, but the meet cute with Kiara Advani is actually better. He walks across the lobby of a fancy hotel, all cool dude in subglasses and a leather jacket, and asks the pretty young woman in a hotel uniform sari for help since he locked himself out of his room. She is sweet and serious and explains that it is hotel policy for her to see ID before she can help him. Sushant kind of does a double take and then barely smiles while he gives his full name, and she carefully types it into the computer, double-checking the spelling. Her supervisor comes up behind her while she is typing and starts to interrupt, having recognized Sushant, and he waves him off and goes along with Kiara as she continues the by the book process, requesting to see his ID to confirm the information. Sushant doesn’t even check his pocket, just says right away that he doesn’t have his ID, to see what she will do. Kiara politely and regretfully tells him she can’t help without ID, she is just here on a training internship and she has to follow the rules.
Her manager starts to interrupt again, but before he can, Sushant jumps in to suggest that Kiara go with him to the room and wait while he gets his ID. Kiara checks with her manager and gets his approval, and then goes along with Sushant being a little apologetic but still committed to following the rules. Sushant continues to almost smile. She lets him into his room, and he doesn’t even both pretending to go into another room, just pulls out his wallet from his pocket immediately and shows his ID. Kiara apologizes again and leaves. To immediately be swarmed in the hallway by an excited group of co-workers burbling over with exactly who it was she just helped. Seconds later, there is a knock on Sushant’s door, it’s Kiara holding flowers from the hotel to apologize for the whole thing. And Sushant responds by asking her name, and then for an autograph, from the only person who doesn’t know who he is. It is super cute!!! And very in tune with his character as established, someone who is very calm and serious and slow. But give him long enough to notice this girl, and make her treat him just like anyone else, and he will respond. Eventually.
Some unknown amount of time later, Kiara is in class when her phone keeps ringing. She keeps silencing it, and finally picks up once class is out. It’s Sushant! How the heck did he get her number? I mean, it wouldn’t be hard, literally anyone working at that hotel would probably be willing to give it to him. But wouldn’t it be something she would at least ask? Disha actually gave him her number, so she knew how he got it, but Kiara isn’t even curious? Sushant at least is a little curious, wondering if she is still in Calcutta so he can see her again. Kiara breaks the news that her internship is over and she is back in school at Aurangabad.
And then, another unknown time later, Kiara wakes up from a sound sleep to hear her phone ringing. It’s Sushant, traveling in an autorickshaw through the night. He is smooth in his own way, telling her that he just happens to be in her town for two days, he’s staying in room 104 at the such and such hotel, if she feels like it, he would like to see her. It’s a definite “actions speak louder than words” moment. He is acting all calm and open, but he also traveled all the way there to see her, including this last little bit at 4am.
Kiara brings her roommate with her the next day (of course, because she is a good girl!). And there is an interesting dichotomy where the roommate is the crazy fan girl one, can barely believe Sushant is there with them, can’t stop staring at him, wants to sit huddled up next to him in the rickshaw. While Kiara is kind of amused and happy, but that’s all. And then over the course of the day, Kiara and Sushant talk, and hold hands, and sit together, and on the way home Kiara is the one all dreamy and staring at him. It’s nice, her friend was in love with the famous Cricket player and Kiara didn’t care so much. But by the end of the day, she is in love with Sushant the person, while her friend has lost interest.
It all goes well for a while, she goes down to visit him in Bombay, and teases him a little asking what happens with them next, and he hesitates and avoids it, and she laughs and lets it go just like Disha did, aware that he just isn’t that kind of guy who is going to make promises and plans. And they spend time with her friends, and on the phone, and get closer and closer. Until finally they are caught by the paparazzi and she ends up returning to her hostel surrounded by cameras. Poor Kiara! Made me think about Mira, Shahid’s poor child bride (okay, she was 21, but it’s still pretty young!) who got thrust into his whole world right out of college.
(Although she did get to marry a really really hot guy, so that probably helped)
Finally, she calls Sushant in tears, asking him what’s going to happen, how can it go on like this, she can’t take all these photos and all of this, but she loves him, she really really loves him. And Sushant has no response. She mentions that Valentine’s is coming up and asks if he wants anything, Sushant has no response. Finally, she gives up and hangs up on him, sobbing, saying she can’t take this any more. And Sushant looks at the phone for a moment, and briefly flashes back to his last conversation with Disha, and then redials the phone and says “Will you marry me?”
When I first saw this, I thought it was a bit sudden and random and hurried so we could get to the World Cup already. But looking back on it, it’s actually a kind of interesting culmination of his character journey. Sushant has spent this whole film accepting obstacles and successes with the same calm, pursuing his own vision with no concern for the concerns of the world. He has trained himself not to want or struggle for anything. And now here is something slipping away from him again and, finally, he is going to reach out and take it instead of just letting it go.
And wedding! And honeymoon song! Which is fine, but I would have rather had a Bipasha Basu wedding item song. She was there in real life! She could have played herself!
And then we are back at the World Cup from the opening, with real footage of glimpses of the crowd, including Aamir Khan. And Kiara very poorly digitally inserted. And I guess maybe Dhoni deciding to take the last at bat or whatever it is called himself is also part of his character journey? To make that decision and take what he wants and know that it is the right thing?
Oh yeah, and India wins the World Cup. But we all knew that, right? This was the bit that felt like tacked on fan service which didn’t really match with the rest of the film. We had this whole slow character growth, coming to realize he had the right to be happy and had earned his success, and then it all ends with a sudden triumph on the Cricket field and footage of the real Dhoni from the celebrations at the end of the real game? I mean, the crowd loved it (at least in my theater), lots of cheering and whistling, but it felt kind of out of synch with the calm slow character study of the rest of the film.