Let me begin with the confession that I know absolutely nothing about cricket. I’m one of the few people in this country who remain resolutely uninterested in the sport. So I can’t knowledgably comment on the transformation of actor Sushant Singh Rajput into Mahendra Singh Dhoni. I don't know how immaculate his immersion is or how well he imitates the helicopter shot. I also have little idea of the politics of cricket, the lows that were left out and the muck that didn’t make it to the screen. What I can tell you is that Neeraj Pandey’s telling of Dhoni’s life is in equal parts, thrilling, moving and utterly exhausting.
Neeraj, who has also co-written the screenplay, bookends the film with the highest point in a life filled with peaks – India winning the World Cup in 2011. Using footage from the historic night, Neeraj recreates the ecstasy of that victory, the emotion and joy that coursed through the veins of every Indian – including agnostics like me. We know what happened and it was only five years ago but it’s an absolute delight to relive that moment.
But in between this is almost three hours of watching Dhoni become the man that he is. It’s an incredible story of a middle class boy from Ranchi who becomes the richest cricket player in the world. We retrace Dhoni’s steps – his warm, loving family; his conservative father who is deeply afraid of the risk a career in sport presents; the coach who spots his talent and his first supporters and friends – all those who instinctively knew that this was not a kid who would settle for less. We relive Dhoni’s struggle as he works as a ticket collector in Kharagpur and watches helplessly as his contemporaries like Yuvraj Singh move up. Neeraj wants us to feel the extent of Dhoni’s suffocation so the camera even snakes into the toilet that he shares with four other boys. This is the most compelling part of the film. Sushant is wonderful in these scenes of the early life – frustrated but steady, ambitious and unhappy – all at once.
But post interval, the narrative loses its drive. By now, the story is already stretched to breaking and our patience is wearing thin. We go into Dhoni’s love life, his decisions as captain, his rise to riches. The songs only add to the length. The bigger problem is that the narrative stops giving us an insight into the man. We don’t see any flaws or even soft spots. Or even how he adjusted to a five star life. We just see a driven individual who overcomes everything that life lobs at him – he even gets a foreign song sequence like any other Bollywood hero. We don’t get a peek into the world of cricket either – the politics in the boardroom or the passions in the locker room.
What stayed with me eventually was Sushant’s air of quiet determination. And the tears in Dhoni’s father’s eyes when his son hits the shot that won us the World Cup. Anupam Kher’s performance is the emotional heart of this film. It sums up the anguish and magic of the game.