Fans can witness the cliché of dance sequences and songs, but also a wide array of films from the art house on critical and socially-conscious topics. Meanwhile, sports is on the rise in India like never before.
The likes of the Indian Super League, Pro Kabbadi League, and the Premier Badminton League have large followings, not to mention the second-largest sports league in the world – the Indian Premier League.
Bollywood is revered in India, cinemas fill up for the biggest movies with the larger than life superstars and it can lead to much fanfare in the build-up to, and after the release of some of the finest movies. Contrary to popular belief outside of India, Bollywood is not all of Indian Cinema, it is specific to the Mumbai based Hindi-language cinema of India.
Fans can witness the cliché of dance sequences and songs, but also a wide array of films from the art house on critical and socially-conscious topics. Meanwhile, sports is on the rise in India like never before. The likes of the Indian Super League, Pro Kabbadi League, and the Premier Badminton League have large followings, not to mention the second-largest sports league in the world – the Indian Premier League.
Several cricketers, Indian and foreign, have also appeared in movies such as Saleem Durrani, Kapil Dev, Brett Lee, Ajay Jadeja, Mohsin Khan, Yogdesh Singh and Shane Warne, amongst many others.
It is no surprise then that the two biggest avenues of entertainment in India are sports and film, and these industries are now intertwined more than ever before! This romance may have started decades ago, but it has really only hit its peak in the past few years. Money, glamour, and shared vested interests bring together the leaders of these two industries in partnerships, with athletes acting in movies and movie stars owning sporting leagues and clubs!
The fledgeling genre of Sports in Bollywood
Sports films have gradually become a mainstay in Bollywood Cinema, perhaps, like Superhero movies in Hollywood. However, their history was not as colourful as it is today. Some of the earliest sports films lacked the flair and ‘oomph’ factor that made for a successful movie, at the time. They were also poorly received and commercially unsuccessful. This was probably due to the fact that cinema simply did not have space for these movies, as a market did not exist for an audience that had its eyes set on romance and action stories.
The likes of Boxer
(1984), starring Mithun Chakraborthy and All-Rounder (1984), interestingly were released right after India’s triumph in the 1983 World Cup, but they were unable to bank off the cricketing victory. It was in 1990 that a 25-year-old, fresh-faced actor, Aamir Khan starred in a movie focused around cricket, Awwal Number, directed by Dev Anand.
Unfortunately for sport in Bollywood, this movie also bombed, but it became the first sports outing for an actor who would star in three of India’s most successful sport films.
In 1992, with the release of Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander
; a story of an inter-college cycling championship, once again starring Aamir Khan, Bollywood had its first mainstream sports movie and box office success. For the 21st century audience it may seem a bit outdated with its viewing experience, and it may not be remembered as one of the finest movies of that era, but it certainly was the beginning of a genre that would eventually take over Bollywood.
In 1992, with the release of Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander; a story of an inter-college cycling championship, once again starring Aamir Khan
, Bollywood had its first mainstream sports movie and box office success. For the 21st century audience, it may seem a bit outdated with its viewing experience, and it may not be remembered as one of the finest movies of that era, but it certainly was the beginning of a genre that would eventually take over Bollywood.
The Developmental Decades: 1990-2010
The seventeen years following Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander saw a smorgasbord of highly successful and engaging, mediocre and down-right awful movies.
Audiences waited over 8 years after 1993 for another success in this genre of film, but, many would argue that it was well worth it! For, in June of 2001, Bollywood released its first major internationally successful movie of the modern era – Lagaan. Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times
, referred to the movie, as ‘an affectionate homage to a popular genre that raises it to the level of an art film with fully drawn characters, a serious underlying theme, and a sophisticated style and point of view.’
With Aamir Khan in the titular role once again, this movie took the idea of the oppressed taking on the oppressors and beating them in a situation akin to that of David vs Goliath. Only in this case, you had the popular aspects of a Bollywood drama film, such as romance, a love-triangle and action, along with the very complex themes of colonialism, racism and in the language of Marx, the proletariat rising up to defeat the bourgeoisie, albeit through a cricket match. With a runtime of 224 minutes, this movie was a mission to get through for a Western audience, but with an intermission (break) in the middle, it was definitely well received!
A few years after the success of Lagaan, Iqbal (2005) was also released to acclaim, featuring a young boy with disabilities, who goes from being a poor villager to representing the Indian cricket team. With social issues at its core, a stellar cast, and solid performances that includes the likes of Naseeruddin Shah, this movie was bound for success both commercially, and critically. The box office budget was approximately US$110,000 at the time and the movie went on to make US$6.5 million while winning several national awards
In the same year, there was a sports movie that was far less successful, and perhaps, far ahead of its time, My Brother… Nikhil, which follows the story of a professional swimmer who contracts HIV and face shaming by society regarding his diagnosis, which he is forced to endure.
Two years later though, came Chak De India! (2007), this time with Shah Rukh Khan, the most popular film star on Earth, as the protagonist. Khan plays a former field hockey (another sport that has historically been popular in India) player turned women’s hockey team coach. This movie tackles issues such as religious prejudice and women in sports. With themes of such nature, Sudhish Kamath of The Hindu referred to it as a movie “about women’s liberation. It is one of the best feminist films of our times”.
2007 was not without its hiccups though, as it also featured a string of failed attempts, such as Chain Kulli Ki Main Kulli, Apne and Goal, movies that covered cricket, boxing and football, respectively.
The year after saw the release of the 2008 movie, Jannat, which appropriately looked into the world of match-fixing, as this was also the year that launched the IPL.
Sports in Bollywood: The Biopic Era
The growth of Bollywood sports movies though has really taken off in the 2010s. Much like the last two decades, there has been a mix of critical and commercial successes and failures within the genre. However, the number of films focusing on sport has staggeringly increased.
Starting with the Akshay Kumar
-starrer, Patiala House (2011), a story about a British Asian and his aspirations of becoming a cricketer for the England National Team. This movie is also the first introduction to the growing relationship of the IPL (and sport in general) with Bollywood. It has cameos from cricketers such as Nasser Hussain, Andrew Symonds, Keiron Pollard, Herschelle Gibbs and more. Alas, the movie received mixed reviews and was not a success by any means.
In 2012, we saw the first of dozens and dozens of sports biopics in Bollywood, Paan Singh Tomar (PST), starring Irrfan Khan. PST is a movie about a steeplechase athlete, of the same name, who later became a bandit, and eventually lost his life in a shootout. It was highly acclaimed, declared a ‘semi-hit’ by Box Office India.
This was followed by another biopic of commercial and critical success, Bhaag Milka Bhaag, the story of Milka Singh, who won several Gold Medals in the Asian Games and represented India in the Olympics. The movie also looked into his life during the Partition of India
in 1947. It ended up as the 5th most successful Bollywood film of 2013.
2014, followed this trend with the release of Mary Kom, starring Priyanka Chopra – the story of a female boxer who became the first Indian woman boxer to qualify for the Olympics, and the first Indian woman boxer to win gold at the 2018 Commonwealth Games. The biopic also looked into themes around pregnancy and women in sport. Once again it was a critical and commercial success, grossing $15 million.
This is not to say that biopics were the only type of Bollywood movies being made, as movies such as Kai Po Che! And Hawaa Hawaai in 2014 also saw commercial and critical success. However, it was clear that the tide was shifting. As audiences had become more responsive to sports films over the past two decades, they were now tuning in to inspirational underdog stories about real-life athletes.
The anomaly though, came in 2016 with Sultan
, featuring the third of Bollywood’s three reigning Khans, Salman Khan, in the lead. It is a fictional story about a Pehlwan, or wrestler who makes it to the Olympics as an underdog. This movie received mixed-to-good reviews, but became one of the most successful Bollywood movies of all times, with a worldwide gross of $97 million.
The anomaly though, came in 2016 with Sultan, featuring the third of Bollywood’s three reigning Khans, Salman Khan, in the lead. It is a fictional story about a Pehlwan
, or wrestler who makes it to the Olympics as an underdog. This movie received mixed-to-good reviews, but became one of the most successful Bollywood movies of all times, with a worldwide gross of $97 million.
Dangal grossed over $300 million worldwide and became the highest-grossing non-English foreign movie in China!
The same year also saw the release of MS Dhoni: The Untold Story, a mid-tier success that once again presented the famed former Indian cricket captain as an underdog, who defeated all odds to become the most successful Indian cricket captain.
The same year saw the release of what became India’s highest-grossing movie ever; Dangal. Starring Aamir Khan, once again, Dangal is the loosely told true story of Mahavir Singh Phogat, and his two daughters, Geeta Phogat and Babita Kumari, who won gold medals in wrestling for India in the 2010 and 2014/2018 Commonwealth Games, respectively.
This movie grossed over $300 million worldwide, and became the highest-grossing non-English foreign movie
in China! Khan, this time around, wowed audiences with his transformation from being a really fit and healthy athlete to an old and chubby father. Dangal, received praise from around the world, especially for its social issues, and it pleased Indian audiences as well, with the underdog biopic formula.
Following Dangal, there were several movies and biopics centred around sports such as Mukkabaaz (2017), Kabbadi (2018), Soorma (2018), Gold (2018), Jeet Lo Marathon (2018), 22 Yards (2019), Chhichhore (2019) and more. Although some of these movies were quite successful, none of them has received the same kind of acclaim that some of their aforementioned predecessors did, they continue to provide a strong showing for sports in Bollywood.
The genre has even made its way to the ‘silver screen’, with high-budget productions such as the Netflix original – Selection Day.
The upcoming decade will continue this trend of sport in movies, with several titles slated for release such as Maidaan
, a movie about the Golden Era of Indian football, ‘83 once again about India’s cricket world cup victory in 1983, 1911 – A film about an Indian football match set in that year, and several more movies in the works. And while Bollywood continues to churn out a range of sport-themed movies, India’s sporting leagues are reaching new heights.
With movie stars investing in sporting teams across India’s leagues, launching sports leagues and leading the sports renaissance of India, the sport and movie love affair has built multi-billion dollar industries that will not be slowing down anytime soon!
You can read the second part of this series here
Zushan Hashmi is a sports enthusiast who works in the policy space in Australia. He is an avid fan of climbing, football, cricket and all things sport. You can follow him here on Twitter.