Maidaan Review: Snooze Soccer

Maidaan draws out more yawns than yays, observes Sukanya Verma.

Underdog sports stories are as life-affirming as they are formulaic.

What distinguishes the decent ones from the drags is vision.

Director Amit Ravindernath Sharma’s haywire take on how an Indian football coach’s commitment led his team to win gold at the 1962 Asian Games in Jakarta, Indonesia, is mind-bogglingly devoid of one.

Internal politics, funding issues, inadequate training, poor infrastructure — the same old troubles that plague the sport, which otherwise inspires wholehearted fandom in the country if not the same degree of nationalistic fervour — weighed it down in newly independent India as well.

Against these shaky conditions and crushing 10-1 defeat to Yugoslavia in 1952’s Summer Olympics in Helsinki, one determined man volunteers to put India back on the map.

Maidaan highlights the achievements of football coach Syed Abdul Rahim and the efforts he put in through from 1950 till his death in 1963 in what would be recognised our game’s golden era.

Story writers Saiwyn Quadras, Akash Chawla and Arunava Joy Sengupta take inspiration from true events to tell his story but adhere to a by-the-numbers template whose crowd-pleasing tactics are so basic in their function, one could easily predict the outcome even if unfamiliar with its history.

Perched in a corner of a boardroom, full of animated babumoshais (among whom Rudranil Ghosh is most conspicuous and grating) arguing in an awkward Hindi-Bangla mishmash at Kolkata’s All India Football Federation, is Ajay Devgn as Syed Abdul Rahim.

Shrugging off the rumpus in the room with the same deadpan expression and nonchalant air he has mastered since 1991, Devgn gets into character: Devgn as Devgn.

If you want me to take the blame, let it be on my terms, he insists and takes on the responsibility of putting together a team that will do the trick.

You’d think scouting for players all across India would give a glimpse of diverse backgrounds and sportsmen styles but Maidaan offers no solid reasoning behind Rahim’s selection or player traits.

We never get a sense of their strength, weakness or what’s drawn Rahim to take his pick beyond malleable players adept at multitasking.

Pity these legends in question — P K Banerjee, Chuni Goswami, Tulsidas Balaram, Peter Thangaraj and Neville D’Souza — are treated like a nondescript bunch as Maidaan documents India’s wanting performance at the Summer Olympics in 1956 and 1960 at Melbourne and Rome respectively.

The young men playing these legends seem earnest enough but exhibit an emotional range limited to sincerity.

With all hopes pinned on 1962’s Asian Games in the Indonesian capital, Maidaan finds its daft conflict in a slithering sports journalist’s irrational hate for Rahim.

Gajraj Rao’s hammy portrayal of this bizarrely influential character evokes a pipe-puffing evil lord from a Dickens novel, smoking and scheming his way through cliché and caricature.

The man’s absurd agenda to humiliate Rahim to the point of jeopardising India’s chances are so comically heavy-handed, the upshot is more soap drama than sports.

Rahim’s personal life is a cursory presence in Maidaan.

Between his wife’s (Priyamani) eagerness to learn English and son’s (Rishab Joshi) resigned attempts to please his disinterested daddy, there’s zero camaraderie to be found.

The same passivity envelops Rahim’s weakly conveyed moves and strategies on the football field as well.

Given the federation’s reluctance to assign a Muslim coach, the uphill task of ensuring a fledgling team’s victory, where both he and football are dispensable, Maidaan‘s politics towards the marginalised is all too ambivalent.

Unlike Chak De! India, a benchmark in the genre, which packed in so much on so many counts: An embattled Muslim coach, an unruly team and its individual woes, motivational speeches, theoretical tactics and their practical culmination…

Or Jhund‘s enthusiastic display of underdog gusto wherein a bunch of gully kids demonstrated a spunkier game than professional footballers…

Or even ’83‘s retro insights into India’s unprecedented, underdog victory, Maidaan‘s washed-out proceedings drag on for three long hours and highlight little of its forefathers struggle.

Be it the indiscernible passage of time and negligible ageing or a lacklustre commentary box that could take a leaf from Amar’s furious football of sherbet glasses, Maidaan‘s snooze soccer draws out more yawns than yays.

Maidaan gets its highs from A R Rahman’s stirring soundtrack and sophisticated background score, often elevating the script’s nothingness to something.

Tushar Kanti Ray’s ethereal vintage imagery blends seamlessly alongside its sports Director Of Photography Fedor Lyass and nifty shots of the hectic game. India’s all-important final against South Korea is easily among its best. But these are just garnishes on a mediocre meal.

Dishing out more of the same on-the-nose routine, racist white players impose their might on a team freshly freed from colonial rule, rioters in Indonesia give India a hard time and Devgn dribbles from determined to die-hard to Devdas.

Channelling the martyr spirit of Bollywood heroes of yore who’d valiantly stay put even when wincing in pain, its yet another instance of the shallow, super filmi biopic.

Maidaan is its truest when the real faces behind that historical win surface in their old glory. Too bad it’s the end of what could have been a beginning.

Maidaan Review Rediff Rating: