Is sports Bollywood's newest success formula?
Stars of latest Hindi potboilers - "Om Shanti Om" and upcoming offering "Dhan Dana Dhan Goal" - hobnobbing with hottest sports personalities at every possible opportunity, is not just very sporty to watch but also makes perfect marketing sense.
After years of numerous attempts to bring the world of sports and the world of make-believe together, the twain finally met in the year 2007. It is becoming increasing commonplace to find images of film stars splashed across sports page and cricketers like Mahendra Singh Dhoni hogging Page 3.
For advertisers and product promoters, sports and cinema is the perfect match. A dream pairing that makes one wonder why it had not happened before. This year's biggest blockbuster so far - "Chak De! India" - was clearly a watershed sports film in Hindi cinema.
Shah Rukh Khan gave a bravura performance as the coach of women hockey team in Shimit Amin's film. With no song and dance routine, sans any romantic angle, the true-blue sports film grossed more than Rs.550 million in India in its first five weeks.
Unconfirmed estimates say that the film is perhaps the superstar's highest grossing film ever, beating the previous record of Rs.580 million raked in by "Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge".
Even before "Chak De! India" became a cult, the Bollywood had been trying desperately to make sports and cinema do the tango. In Yash Raj Film's big-budget "Ta Ra Rum Pum", Saif Ali Khan hummed songs and also drove fast cars but could not make cash registers ring.
Then there was "Apne" a family drama based on boxing, which did reasonably well in Hindi-speaking heartlands, and inconsequential flicks based on musclemen like "Aryan" and "Fight Club". Not so long ago came box-office duds like "Stumped", "Say Salaam India" and "Hattrick" that had sports as a theme.
"We are a sports-loving nation. It's just that not many filmmakers have offered them quality sports movies. Today, audiences have become very intelligent to appreciate novel themes like sports. And don't forget they also want change." says Anil Sharma who helmed "Apne".
Soccer will hog the limelight in days to come as John Abraham, Arshad Warsi and Bipasha Basu starrer "Dhan Dana Dhan Goal" readies for Nov 23 release.
The UTV production directed by Vivek Agnihotri is about a football team comprising South Asians living in Southall, London.
Football also found a passing reference in Shaad Ali's "Jhoom Barabar Jhoom" with Abhishek Bachchan playing a die-hard Chelsea fan.
"It's an exciting period with a slew of sports movies. But I am sure all the filmmakers will attempt some thing new and different from each other," said "Kaal" director Soham Shah, who will soon start his film on adventure sports.
Bollywood dream merchants this year went off the beaten track and stayed clear of cricket, with the exception of a small-budget children's film "Chain Kulli Ki Main Kulii" and references in "Hattrick" and "Stumped".
Given the fact that sports films are watched very critically by sport lovers itching to find technical faults, actors and filmmakers are going the extra mile.
Agnihotri had roped in famous football choreographer Andy Ansah who has worked with likes of Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, David Beckham, Thierry Henry and Wayne Rooney in commercials, to train his actors.
In another upcoming film based on sports - "Raaste" - John and Abhishek will also undergo a three-week training.
Sports choreographer Steve Kelso had trained Saif Ali Khan for "Ta Ra Rum Pum". Similarly, several Australian choreographers trained Deol's (Sunny and Bobby) for the boxing arena in "Apne".
Only a handful of films that have been centred on sports or have at least, a remote backdrop of sports, have done well in India.
Prakash Jha's "Hip Hip Hurray", Ashutosh Gowariker's "Lagaan", Nagesh Kukunoor's "Iqbaal", Mansoor Khan's "Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander" and "Chak De! India" are the most notable examples of successful films belonging to the genre of sports films.
This is not surprising cause as a nation sports and sports personalities have not made profound impact on mindsets of people unlike say Mohammed Ali did in the West.
Cine buffs are still waiting for finding its "Million Dollar Baby", "Escape to Victory" and "Chariots of Fire".
Until 10 years ago, Indians had not seen much beyond cricket and at best, some hockey and tennis. Traditional sports like wrestling and kabadi are generally mocked at in metro-centric Hindi films. City breeds are only recently waking up to sports like football, basketball, tennis, auto-racing, horse racing, ice hockey, etc.
The fact that the central theme of "Lagaan" was cricket was kept as a closely guarded secret till the very end, except a slip by a British actress. Not so long ago, marketers would promote a film not specifically as a 'sports movie' in spite of central focus of the film being sport.
Bollywood is still many years away from producing films that say narrate the story of P.T. Usha or Dhyan Chand. Sports will have to become a part of national ethos before that can happen.
The single unifying factor in various sports films is their underdog tale. Most sports tales are all about triumph and saga of struggle that went into the making of that triumph.
"As a sports-crazy nation, we must have more films on the subject. After all, they have a universal appeal," said trade analyst Taran Adarsh. No wonder then, many more sports flicks are geared up to hit the Bollywood turf.
These include "Raaste", John Abraham's next after "Dhan Dana Dhan Goal", Subhash Ghai's "Cycle Kick" directed by Shashi Sudigala, comedy king David Dhawan's "Hook Ya Crook" and newcomer Sanjay Chauhan, who directs "Lahore" about kickboxing.
A multi-starrer about football - "Mazhab" that reportedly stars Nana Patekar playing the coach of a team comprising Viveik Oberoi, Suniel Shetty, Arjun Rampal, Sohail Khan, Bobby and Aftab Shivdasani is also on the avail.
So, the tagline this year for Bollywood must be: play on.
Indo-Asian News Service