To understand what Mahendra Singh Dhoni meant to Indian cricket fans and to the people of Jharkhand, from where he hails, you had to be where I was on 5 April 2005: standing at the corner of a medical store in Bokaro Steel City. I was still in school then, living in a hostel, which didn’t have a TV. So my friend and I would often go to a nearby medical store, whose owners had a TV, to watch live cricket. That day India was playing against Pakistan in a 50-over match. India won the toss and chose to bat. After Sachin Tendulkar was dismissed in the fourth over, a new player called Dhoni, came to bat next. We hadn’t seen him bat before (this was only his fifth international match), but we had heard of him. And we were looking forward to his innings for two reasons: for years India hadn’t seen a wicketkeeper whose bat could talk, and second, because he was one of our own; he was, much like us, a boy from Jharkhand.
People from small Indian states, whose towns missed the train to modernity, often feel conscious about where they come from. And it’s especially true if you belong to a state like Bihar (or Jharkhand), which is known for all things uncool. In college, when acquaintances asked me where I was from, my answer, “Dhanbad” (a town in Jharkhand), mostly elicited blank faces. And then I had to explain my town to them (an annoyance that has been taken care of after the release of Gangs of Wasseypur). People from small towns (especially while growing up) have to continuously remind others that they exist, that they are not (very) different from the ones in Bombay, Delhi or Chennai. Which is why, when Dhoni came into bat at number three on that April morning, we felt both happy and grateful, as if our existence had been acknowledged.
But we were still wary. “I think he’d do a good job even if he just makes a quick 30 or 40,” I told my friend. Dhoni made much more. As the Indian innings progressed and Dhoni cut, pulled, hooked and went down the track, a small crowd flocked towards the medical store. When he was nearing his 150, we said, “He’s definitely going to break Saeed Anwar’s record [of the highest score in one day internationals then].” That didn’t happen because Dhoni was out at 148, but by then we were convinced that India had got a wicketkeeper, a batsman and Jharkhand an identity. More importantly, the boy didn’t lack confidence; in fact, his aggression was conspicuous, as if telling us there was nothing to be afraid of.
Six years later, I found myself in a house party in a small Colorado town, where someone from Tamil Nadu asked me where I was from. I silently went ‘not again’ in my head. “Dhanbad, it’s this town in Jharkhand. I don’t think you’ve heard of it,” I said, almost sounding apologetic about my place of birth. “Oh, Jharkhand! Of course, I know,” he smiled. “Dhoni’s state.” I smiled back.
Dhoni’s success as a player is significant not just because it ushered a different kind of cricketer (an aggressive, unorthodox wicketkeeper-batsman; a calm captain) but also because it fuelled a certain kind of Indian aspiration, which, till then, had barely found any representation. Which is why a film on Dhoni’s life, M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story, starring Sushant Singh Rajput, seemed like a project worthy of cinema, because it wasn’t just about a successful cricketer but also his circumstances, which had their own story to tell.
But Neeraj Pandey, M. S. Dhoni’s director, seems to have confused a film for a Wikipedia entry. With a runtime of 190 minutes, M.S. Dhoni talks about the cricketer’s life in great —and, at times, unnecessary — detail: his early days in Ranchi; his selection for the school team; his performances in various matches at the school, district, and regional level; his job as a ticket collector before breaking into the national squad; his notable international matches; his sister’s wedding — it’s all in there. As a result, the film often feels bloated and unfocussed, fixated on merely checking off important events in the cricketer’s life and dramatising them in the movie. What also doesn’t help is that this film’s approved by Dhoni, and like most cricket commentary on air these days, M.S. Dhoni comes across as safe, cliché-ridden and unimaginative.
It’s also quite telling that a 190-minute long biopic on India’s most successful cricketer barely has anything insightful to say about the state of Indian cricket or its players. Worse, even after watching a film that long (this fact can’t be emphasised enough), you get no insight about Dhoni, the cricketer, too. It’s sad and surprising, for this looks like a film made less for entertaining an audience and more for pleasing Dhoni. No one expected Pandey to do the impossible, make a tell-all film about the cricketer, examining his years after the 2011 World Cup final — his failures as a test captain abroad, his implication in the IPL match fixing scandal — but at least some restraint, less hero worship, would have helped the film.
Having said that, M.S. Dhoni – by sheer dint of its material (footage of several international matches won by India, including the two World Cup finals; a story that reaffirms following one’s calling, working hard; a central character who’s considered a hero in real life, too) – is the kind of film that’s easy to watch, but that doesn’t make it enjoyable or entertaining. Even the stuff about Dhoni’s childhood (probably the only “untold” part about this film) runs out of its narrative and dramatic juice after a point, and, instead, becomes a succession of scenes playing in auto-pilot mode, giving scarce insight into the mind of a young man, stranded between trying to please his father and being true to himself.
The film, though, also hints, with some degree of success, about an important, but often overlooked, element in making a successful cricketer: not talent, luck, or opportunity (which are obviously essential), but a support system – of friends, parents, mentors, coaches – who will always have your back, keep orienting your compass lest you feel lost. Maybe this is where Pandey and Dilip Jha, the film’s co-screenwriter, should have looked more. M. S. Dhoni has a lot of cricket; it needed some heart, too.