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A Guard-Of-Honour for Women in Sports – An Analysis on the Emerging Trend of Women-Led Indian Sports Dramas

30 July 2020

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A Guard-Of-Honour for Women in Sports – An Analysis on the Emerging Trend of Women-Led Indian Sports Dramas

Across Bollywood and Kollywood, more and more sports drama movies have been made over the years. The Indian audience are a passionate bunch, strongly involved in both sports and films. Naturally, the biggest pull would come from the amalgamation of the two. Nobody can get enough of watching their favourite stars, playing their favourite games along with doses of the beloved Indian dramatics – song, dance, love and tears.

An emerging trend focusing these narratives on women and allowing them to break into a man’s world has been a welcome change – both in sports and cinema. From football to cricket to hockey, these are sports that have been dominated by men in India and it was unthinkable, until recently, for women to even desire involvement in it. 

Times are changing and we must change with it. While the effort thus far has been well-received and successful, there is much to be done for the genre. After all, how empowering can a women-centric really be, if it is still told from the male gaze?


Why are women-centric sports dramas so widely successful?

Sports dramas, in general, are very successful because of the build-up of competition (albeit fictional), the tease of potential victory and the momentarily scary prospect that the victory might be robbed. This storyline and tension-filled pace is a tried and tested formula that works  regardless of language, sport or cast. Be it single-character films or team ensembles, sports dramas are here to stay. 

I guess the craze really started with Lagaan, all the way back in 2001.The period film is set in the 1890s, during India’s British rule. At a period where government taxes were exorbitant, the villagers enter into a cricket face-off against the British with the wager of the waiving of taxes. While sports dramas had existed before Lagaan, this was the film that established the genre as a stand-alone. Since then, many other films have been made, largely focussing on men and their sport. That is, until the last decade. 

(Official poster of ‘Mary Kom’ / Image credit: Viacom 18 Motion Pictures & Bhansali Productions)

Take Mary Kom for an example. The Priyanka Chopra Bollywood starrer was released in 2014 to international acclaim and accolades. The award-winning biographical sports film is based on Mary Kom, an Indian amateur boxing champion who holds several world records. The film outlines her struggles as a woman from a small village hell-bent on becoming a boxer, in a world where nobody took her seriously except her partner and mentor. She also struggles to juggle boxing with motherhood and its challenges.

Similar to Mary Kom is Kanaa. Translating to “dream”, the Tamil film sees a young girl from a village with a relentless passion for cricket. She hones her skills by playing with the neighbourhood boys who recognise and encourage her ability. However, the girl’s mother tries everything possible to stop her from pursuing her dream due to the nasty tales that others in the village say about her. Her only support comes in the form of her father and teammates who push her to take a leap of faith and embark on the journey of taking her love for cricket to a national level.

(Film still of ‘Kanaa’ / Image credit: Sivakarthikeyan Productions)

While both these films have many differences with their setting, language and sport, they both tackle the same overarching issue – the oppression of women in sports. Both films draw the audience in with emotion, stirring up empathy for the main character with the inhumane struggles that they are put through. From being publicly humiliated to being laughed off, these women battle misogyny just to be able to pursue their dreams.

This premise is largely successful with the Indian audience and the diaspora. While the sport is always in the background, the films are largely decorated with heartfelt emotions, song and dance. True to its form, it often borders on melodrama. While this may not be suited for a Western audience, the Indians lap it up. In fact, movies that are excessively procedural about the sport itself does not actually do as well and is rarely made.

(Official poster of ‘Chak De! India’/ Image credit: Yash Raj Films)

Apart from single-character films, there are ensemble cast sports dramas that also do exceedingly well. Chak De! India, spotlighting a women’s hockey team, is one of the most iconic of the genre. While cricket is all the rage in India, hockey is actually its national sport – a little-known fact. The film has everything from romance to rivalry. Shah Rukh Khan plays the all-knowing coach who helps revive the team and takes them into the World Cup. The film won several awards and was widely successful.

The South-Indian variant of Chak De India! is Bigil – a film about an all women’s football team. Vijay sits at the helm as their football coach and the film follows almost the exact same storyline as its North-Indian counterpart. However, Bigil features several subplots that put the drama in sports drama. It tackles subjects such as women’s identity after marriage, horrific acid attacks and body shaming. 

Both movies are very similar in its premise, with much of the focus on the theatrics of relationships and conflict. However, they sufficiently build up anticipation for the main competition aspect of the film.The superstar “coaches” also bring star power and attract the masses to retain that “spice” that is ever-present in Indian films.

(Official poster of ‘Bigil’ / Image Credit: AGS Entertainment)

What can filmmakers do better?

I have thought extensively about whether or not I like the signature indian dramatics. It undoubtedly makes the genre what it is but it also limits who can appreciate the films. Take for example this western critic of Mary Kom where the film is chided for being unnecessarily bolstered with melodrama. That same film went on to win The National Awards in India, the nation’s highest film accolade. Perhaps tapering that aspect of the films will allow for more international recognition for such elite films that tell very good stories.

Another peeve I have, along with many others, is the need to shove a strong male lead into the storyline. Often, the storylines may require a mentor or father-figure to the female to help strengthen and inspire her. While that dynamic is always a welcome treat to watch on screen, it becomes iffy when the competition and the woman’s progress itself is made about the man.

(‘Irudhi Suttru’ Movie Still / Image Credit: Dream Factory)

Irudhi Suttru, is a Tamil language film with a Hindi version under the name, Saala Khadoos. This Madhavan and Ritika Singh starrer is a sports drama about boxing with the former stepping in as a trainer to the latter. While this film was critically acclaimed and one with strong performances, I would have preferred if the female protagonist’s victory or failure was more about her hardwork and less about her coach’s past.

On the contrary, we have Dangal where we see a father train his daughters in the art of Pehlwani, a form of Indian wrestling. The film is the highest grossing Indian movie of all time (further proof that sports dramas are crazy successful). Rightfully so because it very delicately balances the dynamics between father and daughter, allowing them to gain glory for themselves. While he does train them because of his own passions, he empowers them instead of overshadowing them, as opposed to most sports dramas including the above mentioned Chak De! India and Bigil

Filmmakers need to do more to completely shatter the anti-feminist mindset of their audience. While they have certainly taken big strides in the right direction, most narratives are still predominantly told from the male gaze and portrays them as the “saviour”, as opposed to only an instrument in the grand scheme of things.

(Film Still from ‘Dangal’ / Credit: Aamir Khan Productions)

Ultimately, sports dramas are here to stay with their proven track record of success. The genre is incredibly entertaining and has much to like about it with its delicate balance of relationships and evolution of personal backstories. The characters written are often very relatable and nudges the audience into rooting for them. Having said that, I hope to see more space for women to be independently empowered just like men have, in every genre, for so many years.

Get in on the action by writing a screenplay for Sinema.SG’s The Inciting Incident: Drama edition! Hurry, submissions close 9 August 2020 at 11:59 (GMT+8)!

Read More: 
Drama at Its Best – Little Known Asian Gems to Help You Navigate the Genre
Turning Back Time – Iconic Asian Films We Want to See Back in Theatres
Updating the Romance Genre for the Modern Age – An Interview with The Inciting Incident Romance Round Winner, Lee Eun Ho

Stacy is a self-proclaimed wordsmith who tries to see the good in the world.
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