Much before Barcelona’s La Masia, was in vogue, Real Madrid’s academy provided the core of a team that dominated Spanish football in the 1980s. This core of homegrown players were affectionately called Quinta del Buitre, or the Vulture Squad, derived from star player, Emilio Butragueno’s nickname, El Buitre. The football played by this team delighted in its youthful exuberance and expression with Butragueno himself summing it up quite nicely in an interview.
“You like having the ball. I understand football as a way of expressing yourself, of inventing something. It is all about creation. Enjoyment, fun. When that comes off, it is wonderful.”
A decade or so later, Karisma Kapoor and her friends take these words to heart and use a football to play basketball in what looks like a golf course, wearing tennis attire, in the movie Haseena Maan Jaayegi. It was invention and creation alright, and Bollywood has to be credited with expressing itself beyond the realms of what is considered possible while depicting the beautiful game in Indian cinema.
Shaolin Soccer, a 2001 Hong Kong sports comedy, shows how a football movie can use this template and provide genuine entertainment with the audience in on the jokes. With a lot of Indian movies however, the showcasing of football skills bordering on the ridiculous is considered normal. No one is in on the joke. When Malayalam movie star, Mammooty, takes on four people at football in what resembles a prick-the-balloon party game, he does so completely assured in his machismo. While he is hopping about in his white mundu and sandals, there is absolutely no doubt in his mind that he is the best footballer on the planet.
The end product is what you get when a film maker looks at football scenes as a substitute for the obligatory fight scenes in Indian movies where the hero gets to bash up the villains. In Dhan Dhana Dhan Goal, the most successful football movie made in India to date, the makers decide to cram in all the melodrama associated with Bollywood potboilers, leaving us with a cringeworthy excuse of a football finale.
It does not help that even the top film makers in the country do not try to get the small details right. In Karan Johar’s Kabhie Alvida Na Kehna, Shah Rukh Khan’s footballer character channels his inner Shoaib Akhtar and begins a long run up to take a penalty; with the ball placed incorrectly in the box. I guess in focussing on his saleable brown eyes, clenched fists, terrible tattoo and panther like footsteps towards the ball, small details about what actually transpires on a football pitch in reality got missed.
Compare this with the approach of those who made the Goal trilogy. Real Madrid players from that time have spoken about the disruption caused by having actors and cameras in their dugout and dressing room. While not ideal for the players, the results from that attention to detail can be seen in the movies.
Sports movies must be so hard to make. Not so much the capturing of the story on film than the actual shots of sporting action. It must be extremely difficult for a cinematographer to capture elements that sports production houses have spent decades trying to master and execute on the vision of the director at the same time. This explains why actual sport offers more thrills than the action in the movies, embellishments and all.
It is possible however, and in the hands of competent actors and filmmakers, sporting scenes can enhance a movie tremendously. In India, we are seeing it already in movies based on wrestling and boxing. If footballing scenes are written and executed on by people who understand the game, we might one day get a footballing movie that can be genuinely enjoyed. Understanding that it is a game played by 22 players and not one omnipresent galactico would be the first step.