Sports films, a rarity given their history of commercial failure, often rely on the weight of a protagonist or team’s struggle and journey outside the sporting arena to reel an audience in. The elements that make a movie work are fairly universal, whatever the genre, and it would take pretty spectacular filming of sporting scenes and insane guts to sell a movie purely on the action on the field.
The Damned United, Pele: Birth of a Legend, United, Escape to Victory and the Goal Trilogy are examples of football movies where the sporting action has been cleverly interspersed into the narrative, without being the main selling point. In India, where sport has not been given enough importance until recently, it isn’t surprising that very few films have been made on the subject, and even lesser on football. These movies have followed the same template as their universal counterparts.
Bengali cinema kicked things off with Dhanyee Meye in 1971. It was the story of two rival club owners determined to win a trophy, with hilarious consequences. Mohanbaganer Meye in 1976 centred around a romantic relationship between an ardent East Bengal fan and a man whose father insists that he should find love in a Mohun Bagan household. Saheb, about a talented goalkeeper who sacrifices his career for family, released in 1981 and was remade in several Indian languages.
In 1973, Malayalam cinema tested waters with Football Champion, the year of Kerala’s first Santosh Trophy win, and followed that up with Football in 1982. Prakash Jha made his debut in Hindi with Hip Hip Hurray in 1984. It was the story of a computer engineer who takes up the post of a sports teacher at a school in Ranchi.
Following India’s win in the 1983 cricket World Cup, which changed the sporting landscape in the country forever, there was a lull for a couple of decades. Movies with football as a theme weren’t considered lucrative prospects, and many a project stalled for lack of funding. Not that cricket movies did well. Awwal Number, starring Aamir Khan bombed at the box office in 1990.
The Goal, produced by the Children’s Film Society and released in 1999, bucked this trend. While not a commercial success, the Irrfan Khan starrer won several awards internationally. The year 2007 saw the release of the most commercially successful football movie in India. Dhan Dhana Dhan Goal told the story of the South Asian community in the UK through the prism of football. Regional successes followed with Egaro in 2011 and Lorai: Play to Live in 2015. Sevenes tapped into the popularity of seven’s football in the state and released in Kerala in 2011.
In recent years, the success, especially in Bollywood of movies like Lagaan, Chak De India, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, Mary Kom and Dangal, has shown that there is a growing audience out there who will lap up content revolving around sport. The lack of success for India in football annals and nascent popularity for the game in the country is probably the reason why film makers beyond West Bengal and Kerala hesitate to broach the theme.
Hopefully, things will change in the next few years. Glory, the first Konkani movie on football went on the floors this year. In Bollywood, there is talk that Shoojit Sircar and John Abraham, an avid football fan and the star of Dhan Dhana Dhan Goal, will collaborate to bring the story of the 1911 IFA Shield to life.
It was the year Mohun Bagan won the Shield, in the process becoming the first team with native Indian players to win the competition. They beat East Yorkshire Regiment 2-1 in the final and the win is credited with expediting the nationalist movement for freedom from the British. While Egaro explored the same theme, a Bollywood production will be larger in scale and will draw in national audiences. The irony of this will not be lost on Mohun Bagan, who may have to rely on the ISL platform backed by Bollywood stars to remain relevant in 2019.
However, Indian football could do with a big budget production to take the game across the country and inspire more people to take up the game. One of the finest moments in our footballing history is as good a place to start as any.