Sports – Kollywood’s next hit formula?

S Subhakeerthana
Vijay starrer Bigil crossed the Rs 100-crore mark at the Kollywood box office.

With Bigil crossing the Rs 100-crore mark, Kollywood seems to be turning to the tried and tested theme of sports. Bollywood has had a history of churning out sports-based films they can be proud of—Lagaan, Chak De! India, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, Mary Kom, MS Dhoni: The Untold Story, Sultan and Dangal. Currently, the industry is in awe of Ranveer Singh, who is stepping into the shoes of Kapil Dev for the much-awaited sports film, 83. Further, Keerthy Suresh is making her Bollywood debut as Ajay Devgn’s wife in a film related to football. Also, a couple of biopics based on sports personalities are in various stages of production.

What's with these films that cash in on the sports scene? "It's the trend. Just making a film on sports doesn’t necessarily ensure a hit," Arunraja Kamaraj, director of Kanaa, points out. He says, "Over the years, sports dramas in Tamil cinema have worked big time at the box-office like Bollywood. A sports-centric underdog film always has the potential to make the audience root for the protagonist. Irrespective of knowing cricket or not, housewives clapped their way through the cricket portions of Kanaa. It's more about empathising with one's emotions and understanding the team spirit."

At the same time, Arunraja insists that the sport has to be depicted with authenticity to keep the audience invested in the narratives—citing Irudhi Suttru as an example. "Underdog stories are often inspirational and never go out of fashion. As a team, we are keen to give the audience the adrenaline rush and cheer for the winning moment. As a filmmaker, I enjoyed the whole process, especially, the feeling of making the audience watch a live match," adds Arunraja.

As of now, four Tamil sports-based films are up for release—Boxer, Jada, Clap and Jai’s untitled film with Gopi Nainar. Directed by debutant Vivek, Boxer will feature Arun Vijay alongside Ritika Singh, who plays a boxer-cum-mixed martial artist. Reports suggest the film explores the pressure a boxer faces. In an interview, Arun Vijay revealed he had been training in traditional boxing for the past couple of months under the guidance of Peter Hein. Also, the actor had mentioned that he visited Vietnam to train in mixed martial arts.

Jada, scheduled to release on December 6, has Pariyerum Perumal fame Kathir in the role of a football player. "It was challenging to shoot football-related scenes. Since I had been a basketball player in my school days, I had to put in a lot of effort and practice," he tells indianexpress.com, adding Jada isn't a 100% sports film.

The actor, who played an important role in Bigil, says he had to learn the sport to look convincing for the role. Kathir understands why a sport just serves as the base for most of the sports films in Tamil cinema. "Our films are not about the sport. It is more about the individual struggling and beating the odds. Very rarely, we get films that deal with a sport in-depth," he smiles.

A renowned producer-distributor, on the condition of anonymity, says, in Kollywood, they don't make 'pure' biopics, which is prevalent in Bollywood. He shares, "A Dangal will never work here because of the market conditions. Without the traditional commercial elements, the story will not appeal to the B and C centres. Take any successful Tamil film that had sports as its core like Ghilli, Chennai 28, Vennila Kabadi Kuzhu, or Aadukalam, it is packed with entertainment and backed by emotions, sentiments, love and oft-repeated tropes. Even in Kanaa, the makers had touched upon issues like social strata, caste and so on."

Award-winning author-writer-producer-trade analyst G Dhananjayan notes, “Sports-based films are of two kinds — one based on the sport itself and another based on the lives of sportspersons. While the former is challenging to make, the latter has been more successful because of several commercial reasons." He says the film industry is warming up to telling stories on the big screen apart from cricket. He reiterates how films that portray human achievement is received well at the box-office. "We fictionalise stories and insert 'drama' to make films appeal more to a larger audience. It is always the emotional connect and an honest approach towards the script that matter. Because, we cannot assume that everyone is familiar with the sports they are dealing with in the film," he adds.

Director Arivazhagan of Vallinam fame opines, "The Tamil audiences aren't used to watching films without songs, dance and some form of exaggeration in the story. We will never have a complete undiluted sports biography because it will sound like a documentary. Even today, after Bigil, a sports film is still not a safe bet. After all, everything boils down to the business aspects of cinema and plain math. Not all sports can be made into cinema."

Vishnu Vishal notes, "Sports lends itself to a good cinematic experience. But the challenge lies in converting the emotional aspects of a sport into films."

He adds, "Sports in Indian films had been set aside for a long time and have not been treated with the same respect as other genres. Though such themes are exciting to handle, our films have settled into a template." Vishnu insists that a balance should be struck between portraying reality and making an entertaining film.

But Nandita Swetha, who played an athlete in Ethir Neechal, believes the success of sports films has paved the way for several women-led sports films. "A star like Vijay shouldering Bigil is a huge thing today. It didn't happen a decade ago. It reflects the mood of the audience today. I liked the female football player characters because they can resonate with audiences. Women are no longer showpieces in films. Perhaps, this has to do with the rising contribution of women as an audience in recent times," she adds.