In a scene, a potential sponsor asks Dhoni’s well-wisher Dhoni kya Tendulkar hai? And the reply is shot back nahin paaji Dhoni Dhoni hai. The paaji is obviously important. There isn’t another succinct descriptor for a phenomenon such as Mahendra Singh Dhoni. Most paeans (and this ironically titled The Untold Story is surely one) end up doing a disservice or are plain unimaginative in talking about Dhoni. One can pick many stalwart Indian cricketers and then there is Sachin. Dhoni is cut of similar cloth at least in the eyes of the fans and public. No one since Sachin had enraptured the zeitgeist quite the way Dhoni did. Which maybe why a film on Dhoni – while feeling queasy because it has crept up on you quickly and suddenly like Dhoni’s batting – also makes sense. Sachin may have been the enabler. Dhoni is the dream weaver. The enabler is probably better suited in a long drawn out documentary. Dhoni’s story, the small town boy making it to the annals of the game is the stuff made for glitzy garlands, first day first shows, dancing and chest-thumping in the aisles.
Neeraj Pandey takes his time even if as far as biographies go, MS Dhoni: The Untold Story is a straight shooter. Pandey establishes right away that more than cricket, Bihar (now Jharkhand) plays politics. It sets up the whole context for what Dhoni (Sushant Singh Rajput) is and what he stood for when he made it big. Dhoni’s entry was a departure from the norm and the seed for many small town talents getting into the fray. There is another throwaway scene later in the film when we see Jagmohan Dalmiya basking in the famous victory of Natwest Trophy 2002, starting up a talent spotting wing (TRDW headed by Dilip Vengsarkar)) directly reporting to the BCCI, from the confines of a club in Mumbai. Two years later, Dhoni will make his debut for India. These sort of touches delving into the nitty-gritties of the making of a one of a kind cricketer are few and far between in Pandey’s film. Sure, it is engaging and Sushant Singh Rajput is quite wonderful but there is very little that truly stands out about this biopic.
Because it is cricket, there is nothing much to credit the research for. Everything about one of the greatest Indian cricketers is a mouse click away. Knock yourself out. Here, we go for the little moments that make the film. Like when Dhoni’s troubled relationship with his father (Anupam Kher) comes a full circle when he establishes himself in the team – the father says how happy he is to be proven wrong. The father probably speaks for all the selector politics too. Dhoni had already been rejected after he was given only one over of batting where more comments were reserved for his hairstyle than his batsmanship. Or his scene with Priyanka (Disha Patani) in a flight, when he is a known unknown in the team and is asked to help with getting Sachin’s autograph. It makes for a beautiful, flirtatious and yet underplayed scene – mostly thanks to Rajput – when Priyanka apologizes for not knowing his name and he says he hasn’t done anything memorable in the team so it’s only natural. Or the part where we discover that the helicopter shot was not something that came to Dhoni in his sleep. A friend hits the shot, playfully to the balcony that houses his girlfriend, beating Dhoni’s team in the process and Dhoni is dumbstruck and at the same time amused at the nonchalance of the shot. He asks his friend to teach him how to play it and goes about practicing. These moments work because they bring out sports’ greatest ironies. It takes a second to appreciate talent, be in awe of it and marvel at the effortlessness but to see it in the flesh is to go behind its process. How much blood and sweat goes into the making of that effortlessness. This is what biopics are for.
This is an MS Dhoni endorsed biopic. It is even partly bankrolled by Dhoni’s Rhiti Sports so this is not one to go deep into the flaws of the man or his sunset days. The film begins and ends with the 2011 Cricket World Cup. There is one shot of Dhoni in yellow jersey signing for Chennai Super Kings (that brought the roof down in the Chennai screen). The 0-8 Test series losses, the betting and fixing scandal related to CSK owners are at more than one arm distance. But the humble request is even if it is a film made for applause after applause at Dhoni the phenomenon, maybe one can think of playing with the structure of the screenplay a bit. Why go linear and read it like a resume. Let the behind the scenes past mingle with the big matches we know. Something. Anything. But Pandey and others are not up for it. There is a scene where Dhoni is practicing to smile before going in front of the cameras. A man known for his equanimity, so much that he is accused of being too calm at times, practices how much he should smile and where the cracks on his face must fall before going under the limelight. It’s wonderful to watch Rajput going through these motions. It’s pulse quickening to imagine Dhoni doing this. Because it proves that nothing is natural. It makes your subject human. And therefore not flawless. The story becomes all the more beautiful. What we get is all peaks and no valleys. An engaging but forgettable T20 instead of a memorable drama filled Test match.
(An edited version of this was published in The New Indian Express)