(Any opinions expressed here are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters)
Neeraj Pandey’s “M S Dhoni: An Untold Story” opens with a story that has been told a thousand times. The Indian cricket captain walks out to bat in the final of the 2011 World Cup, bails his team out of trouble and hits the winning runs. That shot of Dhoni, his eyes blazing, determination writ large as he hauls the ball over the boundary has been replayed countless times, and remains one of the defining moments of his brilliant career.
It is no surprise that this official biopic (co-produced by Rhiti Sports, a company owned by Dhoni) begins and ends with that pivotal match. The scenes in between are packed with three hours of cricket, some song and dance and a lot of Sushant Singh Rajput. In what is perhaps the role of a lifetime, Rajput plays Dhoni to the hilt, mimicking his gait, shrug, and the unruffled demeanour. He gives us a real feel of what it must have been like growing up in an industrial township in a backward state that doesn’t figure much in the cricket stakes.
Pandey seems determined not to miss out on any moment of his subject’s life, starting from the maternity ward where Dhoni was born, and takes us through his early childhood and teens. In the process he introduces us to a motley ensemble cast of Bollywood’s most talented character actors (Kusum Chaudhary, Brijendra Kala, Rajesh Sharma) who form part of the rich backdrop to this story.
Pandey and production designer Sunil Babu get the small details right - from the matchbox-sized government quarter where Dhoni grew up, to the chaotic railway station where he worked as a ticket collector and the dry cricket grounds where he initially practiced.
As long as Pandey is focused on Dhoni’s struggle to get into the Indian team, the director seems to be in total control of his story. There is enough screen space given to friends who went out of their way to make sure “Mahi” reached the top and the coach (delightfully played by Rajesh Sharma) who recognised Dhoni’s calibre. Given the real man’s reticence over his personal life, a lot of this is a revelation and a pleasure to watch if you are his fan.
But as with many other stories, once the golden glint of success reaches Dhoni (mirrored in his long, blond tresses), Pandey and his story (co-written by Dileep Jha) loses steam. A romance angle is introduced, there are songs in foreign locations and cricket goes out the window, re-emerging only as a means to finish the film.
Despite a run time of more than three hours, Pandey doesn’t find the time to tell us about Dhoni’s rise to captaincy and his temperament on the field. He pays lip service to Dhoni’s decision to axe senior players from the one-day team. Even there, he is politically correct, never naming the players (Saurav Ganguly, V V S Laxman and Rahul Dravid). We never get a sense of his weaknesses or flaws, and the intimacy that was the hallmark of the narrative in the first half of the film is sorely missing in the second half.
For a film that starts off so well, “M S Dhoni: The Untold Story” is unable to achieve what its subject has made an art out of - finishing off in style.