In press conferences, most players are guarded, going through the motions and cliches, happy to get away without being stitched up (unless you’re Graeme Swann, in which case it’s a chance for some bantz). But sitting amongst the journos, you can still gain a little insight through the cracks in the carapaces layered by media training and (often well-founded) wariness of the men and women with the recording devices. Rahul Dravid looked you straight in the eye, considered his response for a moment, and then replied in whole sentences, indeed, whole paragraphs, the discussion turning into a kind of seminar. Sreesanth was lively and funny, charming, like a teenage son who might get into a few scrapes (which, of course, he did).
But MS Dhoni? The Indian captain blocked the questions with an impeccably straight bat, speaking fluently in a slightly inflected accent, at some length, but, as the seasoned pros scribbling notes knew, not really telling us much at all. There was no resentment discernible in his work and a clear appreciation that this was territory that came with the job – once time was called by his minder, Dhoni would tick it off his “To Do” list and get on to the next thing. I, not required to sweep up the anodyne quotes that would fill pages and websites with “As a unit, the batting let us down a bit today, but the pitch was never an easy one on which to make runs” and “We need to be more consistent in our lengths in England and I saw signs in the latter stages of the innings that were beginning to get this right’ could think about other things.
The man is what interested me – the hush instantly as he entered the room, the eyes bright with attention (but perhaps cunning too), the carriage of a natural athlete and the looks of a Hollywood leading man. More than any other characteristic of Dhoni, I was struck by the internal stillness that surrounded him like an aura in even the most chaotic circumstances, a presence that converts to charisma and the means to direct people with barely the raising of an eyebrow. He used that sang froid too in his epic innings as a finisher when the game would bend to his will, the scoreboard moving as he saw fit.
When you get up close to famous people, even the most extraordinary ones, they often seem more human, the common ground between you and them becoming more visible through the detail of body language, a shared sense of humour or the little vulnerabilities of life when the spotlight isn’t at full beam – “Has anyone got a bottle of water please”. With Dhoni, the reverse was true – his otherworldliness was enhanced, his power augmented, his superstardom not a cliche, but a reality.
I wondered how the new film MS Dhoni: The Untold Story would approach the (for want of a better term) “Dhoniness” of Dhoni, having dispensed with any notion that the “untold” descriptor in the title foreshadowed revelations about murky goings-on in the IPL, dressing room feuds or forensic examinations of external business interests. That’s fine with me. The film isn’t that kind of film – but it did show that there’s a warts-and-all biography to be written if anyone can get close enough.
Starting with Dhoni’s apotheosis at the Wankhede Stadium in the World Cup Final of 2011, we see “Dhoniness” immediately and explicitly writ large. In the dressing room, the captain watches icons old (Virender Sehwag and Sachin Tendulkar) and new (Virat Kohli) come and go, with the less exalted Gautam Gambhir steady at the other end. When the Lankans’ ace card, Muttiah Muralitharan is introduced into the attack, Dhoni requests of his coach, Gary Kirsten, in a manner that brooked no argument, that he goes in next, above the left-handed Yuvraj Singh, who just happens to be the man who showed him the power of such gestures in an Under-19s match a decade earlier. Yuvraj is remembered as a hero of that match; Dhoni is remembered as the hero, the articles telling you plenty about the men’s careers. We then flash back to a small town maternity hospital and, over the next three hours, discover how that unshakeable will to embrace Carpe Diem was formed.
Having captured what I wanted to see so early and with great skill and sensitivity, I was happy to give much of the film a free pass – and there were times when it needed it. Though short on Bollywood motifs, director Neeraj Pandey has indulged himself with Bollywood pacing, the movie coming in at over three hours with a welcome intermission in the presentation I saw. The film doesn’t drag, but it spends far more time than is necessary (to someone used to American and European storytelling) on Dhoni’s career-stalling work as a provincial railway worker and on phone calls between himself and the two women in his life (not concurrently in his life – that really would have been a scoop!)
The in-play cricket scenes are done very well, indeed in the difficult area of rendering sport on film, these scenes rank amongst the best I have seen. Sushant Singh Rajput is well cast as Dhoni since, though he lacks a facial resemblance, has markedly different teeth and appears to be a good bit taller, the actor is clearly talented in ball games, his batting convincing and a brief clip of badminton showing what looks like his main sport. He does the strong silent type well too and, if a little one-dimensional in the emotional stuff (makes sure he’s alone, quivers the upper lip, sheds a few tears), in the other pivotal scene in the movie, he faces down the selection committee like a young Al Pacino taking charge in The Godfather, also showing in his eyes that same loneliness that will come from the ruthless seizing and execution of power. Rajput moves like an sportsman too, a skill almost no actor gets right in my experience.
There are some fine turns from the support cast, who get to play plenty of familiar types, from the father who dissuades his son from a life in sport in favour of an education, to the lads who scrape together the money their mate needs to get a start in the game, to the almond-eyed ultra-beautiful girlfriends, the first a tragic love, the second the fulfilling relationship that leads to marriage. I suspect that in real life, not everyone was quite so well-disposed to the gifted, charming, but ruthlessly ambitious man from humble roots, but that’s not the film’s standpoint – and so be it.
The story of (not quite) rags to riches is, of course, a familiar one, and its cricketing backdrop doesn’t really add much to it unless you’re a fan like me who enjoys seeing how others view a figure whom I have watched grow up in the game. The wider context is certainly worthy of consideration though, since, in some ways, the rise of Dhoni coincides with the rise of India. In early scenes, set in the late 90s in one of India’s poorer regions, we see no computers (sheaves of paper requiring signatures pile up on Ticket Collector Dhoni’s desk), no mobile phones and only rudimentary sanitation. Ten years later, Dhoni (but one might say India too – or much of it) gleams with the sheen of international success, the latest technologies connecting people around the world, hotel foyers built as big as palaces, freeways stretching into the distance, filled with luxury vehicles. But the film shows us the cost at which Dhoni’s command of that world comes – not only is his wife-to-be besieged by fans and journalists, in the background of a few shots, one sees Dhoni’s armed guards – you have to look for them, but they’re there.
Was this story as “untold” as the title suggests? Of course not – surely nobody would expect that. Does it succeed on its own terms? It does, the faults more quibbles than flaws, once one accepts the film’s scope. Early reports indicate that box office is good and I’m not surprised at that, but some time in the future, when the movie is long-forgotten, a definitive biography will be written and I suspect we’ll learn rather more about this determined, successful cricketer and his unique journey.