Maidaan – Sports Films and National Imagination

Maidaan, a film based on Indian football coach Syed Rahim

Just days before Sachin: A Billion Dreams was all set to hit film screens round the world, someone asked me what a movie on Sachin would have to offer. The argument was that his life was an open book, and people had followed him since he was a child. To be fair, it was a very pertinent comment. Sachin Tendulkar is one of the most talked-about personalities in the history of modern India, and would a biopic offer us that we did not already know?

First things first, biopics or documentary dramas help expand the constituency. For youngsters growing up with the IPL, Tendulkar’s 18-ball 53 against Abdul Qadir in Pakistan in 1989 may sound routine. What was so special about a 16 year old scoring a fifty in an inconsequential match played to appease the spectators present?

To understand the answer, one needs to have some understanding of India-Pakistan relations in 1989, a time when Kashmir was gradually falling prey to insurgency and political unrest. The Tendulkar deed assumes extra cricketing significance when placed against this backdrop. For a teenager to do what he did against Pakistan in Pakistan was exemplary, and that’s what could serve as inspiration for entire generations of Indians in the future. In an age when people consume things visually, even on the smart phone, and when reading habits are on the wane, it is essential that sports films or biopics step in to fill a void. For an eight-year-old growing up in a “smart” India, a dramatised visual representation is perhaps the most powerful means to perpetuate a legacy, far more significant than videos on YouTube or the written word.

That’s where Maidaan steps in. One of the best things to happen to Indian football in recent times is the immortalisation of the 1962 Asian Games success story on screen. The story of coach SA Rahim, little-known and hardly remembered, forms the basis of the film and the way it has been made it should spark new debates on the sport and instil tremendous pride among followers of Indian football.

While not taking anything away from the achievements of Rahim, there’s little doubt that he is now a lost figure in Indian sports history. That 1962 was the 1983 moment for Indian football is hardly known. All this could change thanks to Ajay Devgn’s superlative performance as Rahim, who should become a household name thanks to Maidaan. His coaching exploits between 1952-1962, which the film revisits and helps contextualise, have been restored to their rightful place in the public imagination thanks to the film.

Entwining a tale about nationalism with a narrative concerning the neglected state of Indian football, Maidaan brought a known story of indifference and discrimination to light. It helped illuminate how Indian football remains trapped within traditional stereotypes. The film uses a conventional Bollywood framework to accommodate markers like cultural values, issues of identity and the ultimate sporting dream of winning the Asian Games gold medal.

With one of the big Bollywood stars playing  Rahim saab, the film has tried to elevate him to a position he made his own after leading the Indian team to gold, against all odds, at the Jakarta Asian Games. What Maidaan has also done is bring to the centre stage concerns faced by footballers from all across India, often the most neglected and ignored talent pool in the country.

While some know about PK Banerjee or Chuni Goswami, their struggles while seeking redemption at the Asian Games are hardly documented. That the government did not want to send the team to the event draws attention to the classic Indian stereotype that sports like football aren’t ever the focus, a myth that has now been busted by the ISL. Maidaan, it is hoped, will give the sport further momentum and make a difference.  In fact, with the movie, many should feel encouraged to take up football and the impetus could also rub off on other sports like Rugby.

In all of these films, the acts of the protagonists – the commitment of Jarnail Singh under instruction from coach Rahim, the discipline in PK Banerjee, Chuni Goswami and Tulsidas Balaram, and the incomparable determination of Peter Thangaraj are so aptly brought to light – demonstrate the importance of discipline and self-control. Each of the attributes is symptomatic of the good games ethic, drawing attention to the fact that for true sportsmen and women, the ame is all that matters. And the recent sports films score over older sports movies in not overly glamorising the players and in depicting the harsh realities associated with sports in India.

Each of us have grown up watching sport. In fact, we are the ‘83 generation. In the past, there must have been millions like me all over the country who shared the joy of 1962, for it was the highest point in the history of the game in India. All of this came back to me as I watched Maidaan. Wonderfully made and recreated, it is a tale that has the underdog at its core. It is not simply a football film. In fact, I would argue that football is just incidental to the entire film. It is the story of modern India, and how a country challenged the world on the football field and changed the narrative with a victory. That’s what the film celebrates on celluloid, and in these grim and challenging times, it does come as a real breath of fresh air.

Amit Sharma, the director, said it right. “The 1962 triumph is not a simple tournament win. It is the story of India and how men dared to dream. As a filmmaker, my challenge was that I was making a film on an event that has been forgotten. You have a responsibility to live up to the significance of this event. Ensure that everyone who watches the film lives that particular event with you. Billions of fans do so with you. I have to say if you love the sport, you will love Maidaan. That’s my big takeaway as a filmmaker.”

May I say, I love watching sports films. Not simply because they speak about iconic events in sport, but also because they help understand the true meaning of sport in Indian life. These films use the prism of sport to know India better, and in doing so, give a new lease of life to Indian sport. Sport isn’t just a news bulletin of 30 minutes. It is not a silo to be submerged by national politics. It is a defining marker of Indian identity and that’s what sports films have at their core. As we get more into 2024, it helps us take pride in Indianness and that’s no mean achievement. And frankly, that’s what unites all the sports films and that’s what makes me optimistic that there will be more made in the coming months and years.

For the moment, it is time to celebrate Maidaan and the efforts of producers Boney Kapoor, Arunava Joy Sengupta, Ashish Chawla, director Amit Sharma and the entire cast led by Ajay Devgn and Priyamani.

I recommend that everyone watches Maidaan, for you will come back from it feeling good about being Indian, and starting to believe that there is hope for every sport in India.

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