Neeraj Pandey’s biopic of M.S. Dhoni is an untold story that’s told by the numbers. The untold story on offer here is a medley of literal facts that never for once attempts to reveal any visceral truths.
Very much like Sachin Tendulkar’s insipidly written autobiography Playing It My Way (ghosted by Boria Majumdar) here’s a movie that overscales its big-ticket lead character to the extent that he dwarfs almost everything and everyone around him. And yet, M.S. Dhoni: the Untold Story, filled me with a very special sort of disappointment that Tendulkar’s autobiography did not.
I am sure you’ve thought about this before, but Dhoni actually makes for a denser, more interesting biopic subject, because he has never been the kind of clean-cut champion that someone like a Tendulkar always was.
If the superficial arc of the Dhoni story follows that typical model of the ‘small-town boy who went onto become a national hero,’ the real arc of the story – for a Dhoni fan like me, personally – is that of a boy who brought to international cricket the ‘gutter courage’ and the street-smartness of his small town.
The standout Dhoni highlights for me are not those huge sixes but those little moments where the critical difference between a ‘job done well’ and a ‘job done ill’ were truly wafer-thin. Like those cheekily effected stumpings where he would wait patiently for batsmen to just step out before whipping the bails off; or that famous double-crossing of Mitchell Marsh where he stood still behind the stumps, not letting Marsh know that he was heading to the danger-end before running him out; or his surprising bowling changes, the seeming outrageousness of which, I think, in the end, may have even contributed to their success.
Everyone remembers the big flourishes with which Dhoni closed innings, but very few seem to recollect that most of these closures were actually scripted by Dhoni himself; after having steered the match to a point where only a big flourish would have saved the day. This is the kind of heroism that shapes small-town legends and rural ballads, and Dhoni has always carried such narratives in his breast-pocket.
If Tendulkar was a true professional who by and by left the spirit of Mumbai’s gully cricket far behind, Dhoni’s instincts and his strategies have always been rooted in the street-games of his hometown. If Tendulkar had his magic wand, Dhoni kept to his bag of tricks; he has always been a trickster on some level, and deception has been one of his biggest strengths.
A Dhoni biopic then need not have to be only soaked in divinity and virtuousness like a Tendulkar autobiography. Even with all of a sports biopic’s staples at hand – humble roots, sacrifice, pain, glory – Dhoni’s biopic could very well have been our chance to penetrate a mind that’s complicated and, on some level, even cunning.
This is what makes M.S. Dhoni: the Untold Story so especially heartbreaking because in addition to never offering us a glimpse of its subject beyond the basic outlines of his journey, the movie hardly seems to be aware of its basic responsibility toward that enthusiastic viewer who wishes to access Dhoni’s consciousness for just some time, inside a movie theatre.
So whole scenes are dedicated to genre staples such as the little Dhoni who, after being drafted into the school cricket team from the school football team, magically learns the ropes of wicket-keeping; the middle-class dad who has to remind Dhoni about the importance of studies; the supportive mom; the supportive sister; the super-supportive friends; the women who aren’t naturally drawn to Dhoni, but fall for him immediately after he mentions to them his true credentials.
Given that the writers were co-authoring this movie with the cricketer himself, one gets the feeling that perhaps Dhoni had been organising his entire life to suit the conventions of the sports biopic genre.
Inspirational scenes and shots of practice are played out in quick montages, with much sweating, and with a rousing score telling us exactly what to feel and when.
The lack of imagination in the visual styles also become more apparent when Dhoni takes to the ground every single time, and his dearies watch him play from their homes, shouting their broadest comments, saying their most generic prayers, and shedding their most well-shaped teardrops.
Also, I fail to understand the big cinematic triumph in pasting Sushant Singh Rajput’s face on Dhoni’s body, and doing it consistently over the entire length of the movie. When Woody Allen had employed a similar technique in Zelig, there was an inherent wit that he conveyed through the distortion he was achieving. Here, inadvertently almost, the technique only contributes further to making this a blandly edited highlights package of Dhoni’s entire life. And adding to that package, are scenes of Dhoni doing commercials, signing contracts and buying a slew of bikes; all of these, supposedly, a part of the ‘untold story’.
There are only a handful of moments when M.S. Dhoni: the Untold Story dares to expand on its pre-calibration of the term ‘inspirational’ and these are the moments that redeem the movie – at least marginally. Like that shot of little Dhoni watching his father – a pump operator – water the grounds at night, as a layer of mist slowly clouds his view; those inside shots of housing colonies with each room almost spilling over into the other; a passing segment that explains to us the origins of Dhoni’s signature helicopter shot; and a Kumud Mishra special where he refers to Bihar as a state dying to have a few heroes it can call its own.
Rajput is a fine, fluid performer but is here saddled with a role that’s strictly surfacey. It just isn’t a role that sets free anything in the actor. Since it is very clear that Pandey never intended to offer the viewer a walkthrough of Dhoni’s impenetrable mind, Rajput, despite his best efforts, cannot seem to break through either. The actor’s natural baritone is quite different from Dhoni’s, but there is a sentimental charm in the way he gets the intonations in the cricketer’s English, replete with the loopy winding sentences, nicely figured out.
This is hardly a great performance, but is a sincere one nevertheless; a minor diversion in a movie that’s otherwise totally committed to the gallery.
And that is my problem with the movie; that it only adds to the myth of Dhoni and doesn’t untie its knots. What the movie needed was an aesthetic investigator’s genuine curiosity, but what it gets instead is a fanboy’s unquestionable worship. With its press release tone and its summary-like structure, M.S. Dhoni: the Untold Story hits you as an enterprise that fails to come anywhere close to unmasking the complexities of its celebrated central character. The movie tells you nothing more about Dhoni than what a speed-reading of his biography might have. And the questions it never asks itself are the questions that might have made this a truly special biopic.
The untold stories of Dhoni, or Milkha Singh, or Mary Kom, or Tendulkar, are in many ways unknown to these sportsmen themselves. A natural sportsperson’s genius can then, perhaps, only be best described by someone who is denied that very genius and can thus objectively turn awe into analysis.
And so the sad fact that emerges by the end is that the title-postscript of M.S. Dhoni: the Untold Story reads as perhaps the movie’s biggest lie. Because it turns out that the term untold was just a part of the movie’s packaging; something that was being served to us merely in an ad cliché sense. And like all ad clichés, it beautifully manages to suggest everything but mean nothing.