Maidaan Review: Sacrifices Depth At Altar Of Disproportionate Grandstanding

Played with admirable restraint by Ajay Devgn, the character of Rahim towers over everything and everyone else in the film.

Maidaan Review: Sacrifices Depth At Altar Of Disproportionate Grandstanding

A still from Maidaan.

As he scours the country for naturally gifted footballers, talent spotter and coach par excellence Syed Abdul Rahim asks a young P.K. Banerjee what makes a good player a great one. Talent, answers the latter. Talent is of no use without focus, the older man asserts in an obvious jibe at the rising football star's cheering female fans. That truism could well be valid for Maidaan too. The film has a field day playing to the gallery and letting its focus stray in quest of sweet spots. It finds a few but misses the mark more often than not. The period sports biopic sacrifices nuance, depth and accuracy at the altar of disproportionate grandstanding.

To be fair, however, it isn't as gratuitously blustery as Bhaag Milkha Bhaag nor as drably predictable as M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story although its runtime is roughly the same as those two films. And it certainly anywhere near replicating the range of relevant thematic concerns that defined Chak De! India.

Dribbling rather fast and loose with facts while unwaveringly adhering to recorded dates and scorelines, Maidaan, which celebrates the golden era of Indian football by bringing to the screen the story of a legendary man manager and football strategist working in a newly independent nation born amid the pain of the Partition, is a hit and run exercise that is undermined by ill-advised overkill.

Intermittently stirring, Maidaan, directed by Badhaai Ho helmer Amit Ravindernath Sharma, pits a doughty Rahim against two scheming men who spare no effort to scuttle the coach's revolutionary plans to galvanise one of the world's most populous - and under-performing - footballing countries.

The on-field action - there is a whole lot of it designed to showcase the skills and stamina of the players Rahim selects - jostles for space with a surfeit of off-field drama involving the protagonist's delicate negotiations at home and on and around the field of play. Played with admirable restraint by Ajay Devgn, the character of Rahim towers over everything and everyone else in the film. That does more harm than good to Maidaan. The battles the hero fights to put together a team that cuts across regions, languages and cultures overshadow the excitement generated by the tough games his boys play against formidable Olympic and Asian Games opponents.

The sporting action, staged and captured with impressive deftness, would have been truly rousing had the two commentators - played by Vijay Maurya and Abhilash Thapliyal - not been the motormouths they are. Their constant chatter is only one example of how overwriting (which stems from the presumption that the audience needs to be spoon-fed the finer points of the game) ruins crucial parts of Maidaan.

An improbable Elvis Presley reference creeps in although Maidaan does not seek to project Rahim as a larger-than-life rockstar. Following a 10-1 drubbing by Yugoslavia at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, a snarky journalist takes potshots at Rahim. The coach quotes the King of Rock and Roll in response: "Don't criticise what you don't understand... You never walked in that man's shoes."

Maidaan would have done well to grant greater play to Rahim's wife Saira (an incandescent Priyamani), his footballer-son Hakim and the back stories of the talented bunch of youngsters that he turned into a strong football unit. There should have been more of P.K. Banerjee (Chaitanya Sharma), whose father is cancer-stricken, the charismatic Chuni Goswami (Amartya Ray), who led India's football squad at the 1962 Asiad, Jarnail Singh (Davinder Gill), a sturdy defender from Punjab, Tulsidas Balaram (Sushant Waydande), an impoverished and explosively talented 19-year-old handpicked from Secunderabad and Peter Thangaraj (Tejas Ravishankar), a lanky goalkeeper who stood tall against the most fearsome of strikers.

What the story and the screenplay (credited to several writers, including Saiwan Quadras, Ritesh Shah, Aman Rai and the director himself) gives us instead is a pair of naysayers - Bengali gents with a pathological aversion to Rahim's style of functioning. One of them is a snooty journalist (Gajraj Rao) who thinks Indian football should be beholden to him. The other is a federation official (Rudranil Ghosh) who pooh-poohs the national coach's strategy to create a pan-Indian team rather than drawing on the immense talent pool in Bengal. They are the bad guys - parochial, myopic and self-serving.

Since the film is about a Nehruvian-era Muslim hero who masterminded Indian football's most memorable phase ever, the journo and the official are film's alternative punching bags. The two Calcutta men desperate to see Rahim fail in his endeavours sit in the stands and mutter grimly under their breath or sulk in plain sight when the Indian team puts up a good show. There is worse. The frequent football federation meetings in the film appear to be attended by people from a single state with the single agenda of stopping Rahim. With the exception of one benign official (Baharul Islam), who consistently speaks up for the embattled coach, they are all full of bile.

For perspective, the All-India Football Federation was founded in 1937. The Indian Football Association, the governing body of the sport in Bengal, was only a part of the larger organisation. The suggestion that officials from one state could have lorded over the conduct of the game all the way until the early 196os is the sort of dramatic licence that should ideally have had no place in a film based on a true story.

The film has a song - Team India hain hum - that is instantly anachronistic. Back in the 1950s the Indian football team was called just that - Indian football team. 'Team India' originated decades later as a branding exercise when, post-economic liberalisation, the nation's sporting bodies began to partner with corporate entities to promote various disciplines.

To heighten conflict, Maidaan falls back on an array of familiar tics. A woman delivers a pep-talk when a piece of shocking news threatens to break Rahim's spirit. The man takes a tough decision about his son when India's participation in the 1962 Asiad - which constitutes the film's climax - is under a cloud. Crowds in Jakarta turn against the Indians, leading to rioting and sloganeering on the streets and in the stadium. Everything that can go wrong goes wrong for the team.

Rahim, being the man he is, takes it all on the chin. The lead actor gets into the skin of the character without breaking a sweat. But the film is seldom that firm-footed. Maidaan tells an overlong, peppered-with-fiction narrative that struggles to balance the real and essential with its unabashed goal of working the audience up into a frenzy.


Ajay Devgn, Priyamani, Gajraj Rao


Amit Ravindernath Sharma