Neeraj Pandey’s M S Dhoni – The Untold Story is a highly unusual enterprise. Never before in the history of cinema has a biopic of an active sportsman been mounted with quite this level of patronage from the subject himself.
This unabashed puff-job has been bankrolled by Dhoni’s long-time confidant and business partner Arun Pandey and personally greenlighted by the cricketer.
Objectivity isn’t, therefore, the film’s strong suit. So what remains untold inevitably puts what is told in the shade.
The director’s hands are forced. He adopts a tame, sterile, straitjacketed approach to the story, depriving M S Dhoni – The Untold Story of genuine purchase.
This is a listless cricket drama more intent on airbrushing the protagonist than on presenting a rounded, hard-nosed, neutral cinematic sketch of the man and the athlete.
The film, though intolerably long, is competently executed. It has a stellar performance from Sushant Singh Rajput, some moments of hilarity, a dash of tragedy and a clutch of strong supporting actors.
But overall, M S Dhoni – The Untold Storydoes not mirror the Indian skipper’s batting style. It is neither strikingly unconventional nor particularly effective.
It is too starchy and deferential to be anything more than an effete paean to the life and times of India’s most successful cricket captain.
With the director’s focus firmly on amplifying Dhoni’s greatness, the cricketer’s many career missteps are swept under the carpet.
This film is, in the end, only a fanboy account of the journey of a Ranchi lad who went from the anonymity of being a railway ticket collector in Kharagpur to becoming one of the brightest-ever stars of Indian cricket.
So if you are looking for an insightful, unprejudiced saga, warts and all, this unabashed hagiography will fall way, way short of your expectations.
Rajput impersonates Dhoni to perfection, complete with the gait and mannerisms, but a wayward screenplay negates his game efforts to lift the film out of the zone of mediocrity.
While the director does a good job of capturing the small-town middle class milieu of Dhoni’s upbringing, he is unable to dispel the sense of awe and admiration that hangs over the narrative.
Dhoni’s success story simply isn’t as full of drama as the makers of this film think it is. Indian sport has witnessed far more dramatic real-life rags-to-riches stories.
The film tells us how Dhoni’s dad (played by Anupam Kher) was keen to see him settle into a stable government job rather than pursue an uncertain cricket career and how the young Dhoni allowed no impediment to deflect him from his passion. But what is so ‘untold’ about these details?
The film is at its most wearisome when it veers towards Dhoni’s personal life. Not only does it bring in the women in his life (Kiara Advani as his would-be wife Sakshi and Disha Patani as Priyanka) but also laces the encounters with love songs. That’s an ungainly heave that yields no returns.
When the film gets to the business end post-interval and dramatizes the big moments of Dhoni’s career, it turns into a never-ending highlights package, the kind that sports channels run on a loop. Ravi Shastri’s shrill, over-excited voice on the soundtrack only strengthens that impression.
M S Dhoni – The Untold Story, cinema’s equivalent of vanity publishing, tom-toms Dhoni’s achievements in life and in the game and recaps Indian cricket’s recent history with the wicket keeper-batsman occupying the prime position. Neither makes for particularly memorable cinema moments.
These are anyways too fresh in the public memory to bear repetition, even in widescreen, colour-spangled glory.
Watching M S Dhoni – The Untold Story is like being subjected to two films – that is the kind of strain it inflicts.
The time that it takes to play out – 190 minutes – is roughly the playing hours of a Twenty20 match. The latter is pure slam-bang. Dhoni’s life on the big screen is a long, tiring ambulation through boredom.
The film plays out less like an engaging life story than an in-your-face big-screen advertorial.
Only the very gullible or the very generous would be inclined to take M S Dhoni – The Untold Story as anything more than an image management company’s attempt to bolster and extend the power of a lucrative brand that is nearing the end of its currency.
All this would have been passable had large swathes of it not been so uninteresting and fawningly laudatory. Short of actually conjuring up a halo around Dhoni’s head, the film does just about everything.
It stretches from his early successes at the school and domestic level to his international breakthrough to his T20 and ODI World Cup-winning feats.
Off the field, the Dhoni story per se is unremarkable, hardly any different from the trajectories of many other Indian cricketers of the past and present who emerged from modest backgrounds.
The film has obviously sprung from the belief that moviegoers are dying to watch Dhoni’s life play out on the big screen. Who knows, there might be enough of that breed out there to justify the existence of this film.
But strictly as cinema, M S Dhoni – The Untold Story is a patience-trying exercise.
Instead of delving into the complexities of an international sporting career with its share of controversy, the patchy script glosses over the grey areas and concentrates squarely on lionizing Dhoni as a model sportsman.
No references are made to the aftermath of the CSK betting scandal and the allegations of conflict of interest levelled against Dhoni.
Nor is a word uttered on Dhoni relinquishing Test captaincy in the middle of a difficult away series.
But so what? M S Dhoni – The Untold Story is targeted at fans of the cricketer and they are legion. Some might also want to watch the film for Rajput’s spirited and spot-on performance.
There is little else here that is worth the price of a multiplex ticket. Read a hymnbook instead. It might be less somnolent.