Movie Review: M.S. Dhoni — The Untold Story (2016)

m-s-dhonitheuntoldstory2 Stars (out of 4)

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Watching M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story leaves one encumbered with questions. Chiefly: “Why does this movie exist, other than to cash in on a nation’s love for its cricket captain?” The choice to make a fictionalized biopic about Dhoni’s life is bizarre.

The choice is especially weird because Mahendra Singh Dhoni has an unremarkable origin story. A gifted natural athlete, he chooses cricket over his first love, soccer, simply because his middle school team needs defenders. He excels quickly, gaining renown throughout the region. The community enthusiastically supports the lad, although his dad (Anupam Kher) also wants young Dhoni to study, just in case his sporting career doesn’t pan out.

Dhoni’s mundane childhood eats up the first hour of a three-hour-long movie. Yet writer-director Neeraj Pandey doesn’t allow enough time to explain the more complicated aspects of Dhoni’s career as he grows into a young man, played by Sushant Singh Rajput.

Audience members who don’t already understand the interconnections between India’s various cricket leagues — youth, national, semi-pro, etc. — are at a loss. Without such understanding, there are no meaningful stakes. When Dhoni misses out on a chance to play for the national under-19 team but gets called to play for another trophy instead, the significance and impact on his career trajectory aren’t explained.

The most compelling part of Dhoni’s journey comes during a multiple-year stint playing cricket for a team owned by a railroad that also requires its players to work for the railroad during the day. The company-provided accommodations sleep four people in a one-bedroom apartment. Is this how professional cricket in India works? Couldn’t he find better working conditions elsewhere? Why does a railroad even own a cricket team?

Pandey’s story doesn’t answer those questions, nor does it delve into Dhoni’s feelings during this lull. The closest we get to introspection is Dhoni telling his boss that he’s depressed, and the boss responding with a “life is like cricket” speech.

The real Dhoni is a charismatic guy, yet we see none of that spark in the fictional version. Rajput’s delivery is flat, his demeanor serious. Pandey’s Dhoni is sanitized to avoid any chance of offending the man himself (or his rabid fans).

Instead of casting a third actor to play Dhoni as a teenager, Pandey uses computer effects to shrink Rajput, similar to the technique used on Chris Evans in the first Captain America movie before scrawny Steve Rogers mutates into a superhero. The effects in M.S. Dhoni are not up to the same standard as those used in the Marvel movie, so Rajput just looks like a creepy, miniature version of his 30-year-old self. The brief sequence isn’t essential to the narrative, so it should’ve been left out.

M.S. Dhoni is a sports movie devoid of inspiration. A documentary would’ve been more compelling since it would’ve allowed us to hear from Dhoni in his own words, offering insight into the athlete’s persona that Pandey refuses to examine. There is no “untold story,” as promised by the subtitle.

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21 thoughts on “Movie Review: M.S. Dhoni — The Untold Story (2016)

  1. Ravi B

    “The most compelling part of Dhoni’s journey comes during a multiple-year stint playing cricket for a team owned by a railroad that also requires its players to work for the railroad during the day. The company-provided accommodations sleep four people in a one-bedroom apartment. Is this how professional cricket in India works? Couldn’t he find better working conditions elsewhere? Why does a railroad even own a cricket team?”

    None of those questions need be explained to an Indian audience crazy about cricket . Probably would have been a waste of screen time if they spend time “explaining” such things to an audience who already know the whys and the whats of Indian cricket.

    1. Kathy Post author

      Sure, Ravi B, but you would do that in a documentary to give context, no matter if your main audience knew it or not. And what does it hurt to make something accessible for an audience outside of India? There are a lot people in the world with money to spend, and sports movies generally travel very well. Besides, the movie is already three hours long! Surely there’s room to include a couple of explanatory lines of dialogue.

  2. Mayur B

    Kathy,

    Your review and comments lack cultural insight and sound stupid to someone with any knowledge of ground realities in india….sorry but had to comment, cheers.

    1. Kathy Post author

      I don’t write my reviews for Indians, Mayur, I write them for Westerners — the very people who don’t have “knowledge of ground realities in india.” Oh, and thanks for the “cheers.” It makes calling me “stupid” much better. (That was sarcasm, btw.)

  3. Himanshu Dev

    Hi Kathy,

    Firstly, I’d like to apologize on behalf of some of my fellow Indian posters like Mayur here. These people clearly lack manners and don’t know how to show respect to a lady!

    Secondly, I’d like to point out that I am a huge fan of your site. Believe me, I always check your reviews before watching the movie, since you always have that practical side of the movie listed in your review, whereas other (read “Indian”) review sites mostly sugarcoat the story line, especially if it has some mega stars.

    In this case, I’d like to differ a bit from you. To provide you some background, I am a Canadian citizen of Indian origin, and a die-hard fan of cricket 🙂 So, I can offer you both a “western” and an Indian perspective about this movie.

    Think of this movie as a biopic of say, Wayne Gretzky, or Michael Jordan, or Muhammad Ali, or Babe Ruth, or Mickey Mantle, or Arnold Palmer (by the way, I know Hollywood has made biopics on at least 2 of them already). Wouldn’t Hollywood show the greatness of the sportsperson, even if it seems like a lot of fluff?

    Now, multiply the emotion that a baseball fan would feel while watching a Mickey or Babe biopic by, say, at least a 1000. Why? Because India is a really cricket crazy nation. Indians live and breathe cricket. Our lives run on how humble Sachin Tendulkar is, or how Virat Kohli has an amazing attitude, and how MS Dhoni transformed Indian cricket and took it to its peak. A bit of context, Kathy…MS Dhoni was the Indian Cricket Team’s captain that won the World Cup in 2011, in front of the home crowd, and made almost 1.5 billion Indians around the world ecstatic. It’s only natural that his biopic shows him greater than life and a go-getter.

    I understand that you might have not liked the movie, and that’s so okay…To each his/her own…However, I do think that if you were an Indian, you’d probably rate this a bit higher than 2/4…After all, if a movie is made on say, Mickey Mantle, Indians wouldn’t really get why Americans are crazy about the late Baseball star.

    Keep up the good work though. Looking forward to your reply!

    Regards,

    Himanshu

    1. Kathy Post author

      Thanks, Himanshu! Your kindness is much appreciated! 🙂 I totally agree with your point that this is a film geared toward die-hard fans (of which Dhoni already has hundreds of millions). As a fan of Dhoni yourself, do you feel that the movie showed his personality accurately? From what I’ve read about him and in the interviews I’ve seen, he seems like a fun, charming, and kind of quirky guy, but the Dhoni in the movie was very serious. Do you feel like Sushant Singh Rajput’s depiction did the real Dhoni justice?

      Also, since you were so considerate, perhaps you could explain to me the significance of his stint at the railroad team. Was he a full professional player during that time or just semi-professional? Is it the equivalent of playing minor league baseball in North America? Did playing for the railroad team offer him a real opportunity to earn a spot on the national team, or was it always going to be a waste of his time?

      One important point I want to make is that I didn’t have these kinds of big questions after watching other Indian sports biopics like Mary Kom or Bhaag Milkha Bhaag. Those were very accessible to a wide audience, and I think Mary and Milkha Singh gained many new fans because of those movies. It feels like Neeraj Pandey didn’t care about earning Dhoni new fans, and that he knew Dhoni fans would love the movie just because they love Dhoni. I think Dhoni deserved better.

      All the best,
      Kathy

  4. Vaibhav

    Hi Kathy,
    I am a regular visitor and a big fan of your blog. I am writing here for first time, due to insensitivity shown by some posters. You provide a different perspective on bollywood movies and point out things which may not be so obvious to indian audience. Keep up the great work!

    Coming to the movie, I would like to mention a few things. Dhoni came of age in an era when Indian economy was in the early stage of liberalisation. It was still dominated by Government and Government owned corporations. There were very few college scholerships or corporate sponsorship for Sportpersons. They(especially small town sportpersons) depended mostly on support of Government or these corporations. Bureaucrats of these corporations kept an eye on budding sportpersons and roped them in for corporations team.

    Movie shows role of two corporations, Western Coalfields Ltd(WCL) and Indian Railways(IR) in shaping Dhoni’s career. In India, railways is still a monopoly of government. IR fields its cricket team in National level tournaments such as Ranji Trophy. This tournament is a potential gateway to International Stage.

    So, Dhoni might have made it to National stage through IR team. But, seems he was held back due to internal politics or just plain bad luck. His story is inspiring to millions of young Indians due to the fact that he never gave up despite so many obstacles.

    More than batting skill, Dhoni is known for his Captain Cool persona. He is solid as a rock even under pressure of expectations of a billion people. He always takes unconventional decisions and proves them right. May be thats why Sushant Singh has depicted Dhoni in a flat manner. Dhoni is not known for being overtly emotional.

    Another selling point of the movie is that, it helps us Indians relieve all the highs and lows of cricket in last decade. Almost everyones eyes invarialbly welled up at the last scene of world cup win. It was remarkable moment in Indian cricket history and Dhoni was main architect of it.

    Hope this helps a bit in clarifying the context.

    Vaibhav

    1. Kathy Post author

      Vaibhav, I wish you would’ve helped write this movie. 🙂 Thank you so much for explaining the significance of the government teams, India’s economic situation at the time, and even the importance of Dhoni’s first sponsorship. The movie spent so much time focusing on the sponsorship without explaining why it was a big deal. It sounds like Dhoni’s story really would appeal to an international audience, whether they are cricket fans or not. It’s too bad this movie doesn’t give enough context to explain why Dhoni’s achievements are so remarkable (or really even show his Captain Cool reputation being put to the test).

      Instead of structuring the movie as a chronological retelling of Dhoni’s life, a better approach might have been to make a movie about the World Cup victory, but with Dhoni as the focus. A World Cup-oriented film still would featured flashbacks, but it would have been easier to put significant moments in context. For example, Dhoni is gearing up for the WC final and he looks at his bat, triggering a flashback as he remembers how it felt to get his first sponsorship.

      Thanks for your kind words and loyal readership, Vaibhav. Your first comment here was a good one! — Kathy

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    1. Kathy Post author

      I don’t know if I have a favorite, Azhar. I really look forward to movies starring Farhan Akhtar, Randeep Hooda, Vidyut Jammwal, Aamir Khan, and Shahid Kapoor, so I guess they’re my favorites.

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