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MS Dhoni: The Untold Story

Directed by Neeraj Pandey

Starring: Sushant Singh Rajput, Disha Patani, Kiara Advani, Anupam Kher, Bhumika Chawla, Rajesh Sharma, Kumud Mishra and Herry Tangri

It’s difficult to pinpoint what aspect of MS Dhoni: The Untold Story is more lacerating: how MS catapulted himself to awesomeness for the ‘helicopter-shot’, the loveless direction, the egregious presentation of captaincy skills, of cut-paste match-clippings, or the disturbing manner in which fame results into endorsing brands and shooting advertisements for the masses. Yeah, that’s right: Neeraj Pandey’s perseverance and research-saga come readymade with a midpoint rhetorical shift which tries to excuse even some of the genuine small moments anywhere in the vicinity; every event the film chronicles is big and significant, grandiose in a story-of-his-life checklist sort of way, and its only about Dhoni people give a damn. While a lot of research and meticulousness went into the first half of the movie, it was equally misdirected and vague in the second half. It does so in a completely bland, predictable and uninteresting way, but Neeraj Pandey and his cohorts know exactly how to push the right buttons and hide their flaws under a glossy sheen that only a hardened cynic will come away from the film unmoved.

Should cinema-goers reward filmmakers for being unnecessarily obtuse?

The film takes a real-life triumph over adversity and polishes it until it shines, in the process straining out anything but the most predictable and manipulative elements. In that sense, the director plays his audience like a guitarist occasionally using the wah-pedal to intensify music-distortion, and succeeds masterfully at what he sets out to do. From the moment we first see Mahendra Singh Dhoni we root for him. The script is an endeavor to unveil a few pages of the life of a budding cricketer becoming the most successful Captain of Indian Cricket Team. The cricketer is known for his swashbuckling strokes, rasping rejoinders, quicksilver wicket-keeping, and jaw-dropping tactical moves as a captain. He is one of the most exhilarating and enigmatic Indian cricketers of the 21st century.

The direction regularly resorts to the most hackneyed and cheaply sentimental images possible in an effort to elicit waterworks; the screenplay opens inside the dressing room of the ICC Cricket World Cup Final (India vs Sri Lanka) which shows Dhoni entering the field to play one of the most crucial innings of his career, suddenly shifts to the flashback-story in Ranchi, Bihar, India set in 7 July 1981. Domestic scenes are trite and obvious; we see a quiet winter morning, the sun barely able to make its presence felt through the haze, where a small second floor flat in a building desperately asks for a makeover after the elapsed monsoons and director Neeraj Pandey perfectly captures the milieu of the small-town government housing complex and public school where Dhoni, an average guy, first displays his ability to smash the ball out of sight. His dodging the foot-ball skills were spotted and honed into successful wicket keeping by physical-training-coach Banerjee (Rajesh Sharma). But Dhoni’s dad (Anupam Kher) was keen to see him settle into a stable government job rather than pursue an uncertain cricket career. However, the rest of the story showcases how the young Dhoni allowed no impediment to deflect him from his passion.

Dhoni took each step towards adulthood as video vignettes of some of his memorable matches regularly punctuated the drama, with printed titles keeping track of the time and place, and in the process he caught the eye of a Coal India officer (Kumud Mishra) and later an Indian Railways official (Kali Prasad Mukherjee). Ambitions don’t replace necessities, and he successfully secured the ticket collector’s job, that brought him to his unhappy, tedious life in Kharagpur.

Dhoni’s unenthusiastic bout as a railway ticket collector is sampled at length, when there were more interesting periods that could have been covered. The director aggressively goes for the syrupy jugular rather than allowing his inherently poignant story to throw its own punches; and thus by the climactic showdown, one feels exhausted by the film’s belligerent mawkishness. Matters aren’t helped when the plot of the film throws light on the tragic first-love of Dhoni and how yet again, he found the love of his life in Sakshi who speaks in a baby-girl voice and cries with dry-eyes.

Unencumbered by clumsy storytelling, Neeraj Pandey is able to effectively convey the visceral excitement of the matches Dhoni played. He seems unsure of his ability to convey enough emotion with the cricketer alone, however, Dhoni’s first international ton against Pakistan at Vishakhapatnam in 2005, his sudden retirement from Test cricket, his faulty overseas record as captain as well as batsman, his equation in the team, and his ultimate journey from a keeper/batsman to the captain of Indian Cricket team remain completely untold, as if the director in his desperation to make Dhoni more awesome than he ever was, has forgotten some of Dhoni’s tremendous flak and a string of defeats in the last minute. As a sports film, it does not quite take the genre by the horns and deliver a product unsullied by the conventions of a Bollywood potboiler.

Sushant Singh Rajput, as MS Dhoni is gobstoppingly spectacular. The actor has always flirted with the unfamiliar but here, at his most real, he absolutely shines and the film stands back and lets him rule. His performance elevates the film above its over-wrought script and Pandey’s ham-handed direction. His Dhoni is subdued, even charming at times, but never more alive than when he’s on the pitch. It’s a bold but immaculately measured performance, internalised and powerful while simultaneously as overt as it needs to be.

The inarticulate acting of the two newcomers as Dhoni’s love-interests, who have interesting sullen qualities even when they remain silent, never adequately fill in the blanks of the characters. The rest of the supporting cast are throughout pinned to the mat in the most obvious sorts of realism. They make their presence felt in no uncertain terms. Herry Tangri as Yuvraj Singh makes all the right moves.

For undemanding viewers, MS Dhoni: The Untold Story will be as much of a pleasure as any of Neeraj Pandey’s other award-baiting films. But its charms are skin-deep and rote, technically proficient and signifying very little. It has everything to please its target audiences. It has megahit written all over it. Though competently executed, the film’s intolerably long.

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