Maidaan Review:  A glorious Ajay Devgn, an edge-of-the-seat second half, but is it factually accurate?
Maidaan Review:  A glorious Ajay Devgn, an edge-of-the-seat second half, but is it factually accurate?

Amit Sharma steers clear of the melodrama but takes ample creative liberties in this sports biopic 

Director: Amit Sharma 

Writers: Saiwyn Quadras, Aman Rai, Atul Shahi, Amit Sharma, Ritesh Shah, Siddhant Mago, Akash Chawla, Arunava Joy Sengupta 

Cast: Ajay Devgn, Priyamani 


The Plot

The movie opens with visuals of a barefooted Indian football team suffering a dismal 10-1 loss to Yugoslavia at the 1952 Olympics. 'SHAME!', screams the next day’s headline. The national football federation takes Syed Abdul Rahim, the coach of the team, to task. Although he tries to reason with the board it is clear that not everyone is his alley. Shubhankar (Rudranil Ghosh), one of the board members, has a bone to pick with Rahim. He thinks that Rahim is favouring Hyderabad, from where he hails, and giving Shubhankar’s Bengal players a raw deal. The movie goes on to trace this rivalry with Shubhankar being joined and manipulated by an egotistical and powerful Bengali newspaper editor Roy Chaudhary (Gajraj Rao), along with Rahim saab’s journey as a coach where he eventually handpicks a team replete with players including, Peter Thangaraj (Tejas Ravishankar), Jarnail Singh (Davinder Gill), the holy trinity of PK Banerjee (Chaitanya Sharma), Chuni Goswami (Amartya Ray), and Tulsidas Balaram (Sushant Waydande), and the hat-trick maker at the 1956 Olympics, Neville D'Souza (Aryann Bhowmik), from across India who would become legends themselves,  and guides them to the Asian Games gold glory while battling cancer.


Along the way his tactical innovations and technical brilliance got the team the tag of ‘Brazil of Asian football’ (in fact, his masterstroke of opting for the 4-2-4 system, which is deftly created in the movie, was made popular by the Brazilians much later in the 1958 and 1962 World Cup, proving how far ahead of his time Rahim saab was).




Fiction Over Facts

It seems there are a lot of creative liberties that the movie takes deviating from hard facts to build the off-field drama, especially with the characters of the conniving Shubhankar and egotistical Roy Chaudhary and their single-minded pursuit to bring Rahim down. The two characters tremble on the brink of caricatures and often remind one of the scheming vamps of saas-bahu serials. Although superlative actors, neither get much to do that give sinister Komolika-like expression during the nail-biting matches.


Although Rahim had faced severe criticism and opposition from the Bengal lobby in the initial years of his tenure, especially from Balaidas Chatterjee who was the first head coach of the Indian national team and had led the team during its Olympic debut in 1948. According to them Rahim’s initial team seemed to be favouring Hyderabad players instead of players from the Bengal clubs, unlike what the movie shows, he had an unbroken stint as a coach between 1956 and 1962. And he was a powerful man, he was definitely not the victim of internal politics going door-to-door almost begging for another opportunity to return as the coach.


I am not sure if there was a Roy Chaudhary-like figure plotting against Rahim but it is difficult to find logic behind the continued gripe of Roy Chaudhary and Shubhankar against him that emanated from the fact that Rahim’s team initially didn’t have adequate number of players from Bengal. More so in 1962 when the team had Chuni Goswami, Jarnail Singh, and Arumai Nayagam from Mohun Bagan, Arun Ghosh, Prasanta Sinha, and Ram Bahadur Chhetri from East Bengal Club, Peter Thangaraj from Mohammedan Sporting and PK Banerjee and Pradyut Barman from Eastern Railway Football Club—all West Bengal-based football clubs.


The movie also misses to establish that India won not one but two Asian Games golds under Syed Abdul Rahim. He became manager of the India national football team in 1950 and in 1951, under him, India defeated a strong Iranian team 1-0 in the final for their first-ever Asian Games gold medal. But he still faced strong opposition from many in the Bengal camp and hence even after bringing home the Asian Games gold he still didn’t have much of a say in the team selection. Things reached rock bottom for Indian football just one year after the Asian Games win as the team lost 1–10 against Yugoslavia at the 1952 Olympics, the heaviest loss India has suffered in international football ever. His position as the coach of the Indian football team became wobbly.




It was in 1956 that he found a strong foothold and was given full control to pick his own team—under him, India beat Australia 4-2 in the quarter-finals with Neville D’souza shooting a hattrick, before losing again to old nemesis Yugoslavia 4-1 and then losing the bronze medal to Bulgaria (3-0) —and had an unbroken stint as a coach till the 1962 Asian gold. Between 1956 and 1962, Rahim Saab, as he is still fondly remembered, ruled with an iron fist helming the Golden Age of Indian football. 


It might have been interesting and added a different layer if the movie had also touched upon a bit more on how Rahim mentored his son, the Dhyan Chand Award winner Syed Shahid Hakim, who was part of the 1960 Olympics team and after a 25-year-long playing career became a FIFA referee and also coached several clubs including Salgaocar.


The craft 

Having said that, there is no denying the fact that Maidaan is a big step forward for Bollywood when it comes to the genre of sports drama. It is engaging and entertaining, so much so that you actually don’t mind the factual discrepancies. More importantly, you need not be a football fan or even a sports fan to enjoy this sports drama. I for one have never understood the charm of football. Being born and brought up in Kolkata, the Mecca of Indian football, I could not escape football, but I have a hate-hate relationship with the game. I remember my cousin brothers taking turns to explain ‘diamond formation’ to me when we were kids. I remember jumping out of my skin when my neighbour uncle would scream ‘goaaaal’ while watching football on television with the commentary being turned up to the highest volume. I remember altercations turning physically violent during Brazil-Argentina matches. But mostly I remember not understanding why the hell so many people are running from here to there with only one person having the ball. I found football chaotic and boring and was only interested in the elaborate dinners that would follow the big matches. Maidaan was the first instance where I actually got hooked to the game.  In fact, this was also the first instance since Lagaan that I saw the audience become so invested in the movie version of a match—there was collective cheering and loud applause after each goal! I think it is a bigger triumph of cinema when a movie manages to get the general audience hooked instead of just the nerds. The matches in Maidaan are not only well crafted and executed, but also very well edited (although a sports journalist friend of mine did point out that not all the goals had happened exactly the same way as they are shown in the movie).


It is technically brilliant but the direction never becomes self-indulgent and keeps the focus of the story firmly on Rahim, the editing ensures edge-of-the-seat moments, especially in the glorious second half, the BGM although often too loud doesn’t become overbearing, and the writing is free of melodrama or jingoism and instead reflects the patriotism of a newly-independent nation that is eager to make its presence felt on the global map.




But at the same time, it is the writing that eventually becomes its weak point. The writing credit includes a whopping 9 names and it seems somewhere it might have become a case of too many cooks. Or maybe it was the director’s call. But just as Rahim’s character is stripped of all excess melodrama, the characters of the unidimensional ‘villains’ stick out like sore thumbs in a movie that is so modern in its approach especially having resisted the Bollywoodish temptation of delving into rags-to-riches backstories of the players or exploiting Rahim’s cancer to get audience sympathy. Subhakar is a villain without a pause, while Roy Chaudhary is a villain without a real cause—their wafer-thin motivations hardly help in establishing them as characters. It comes across as a lazy job with the writing desk going for the lowest-hanging fruit. Not all heroes need a villain to be considered great anyway.


Ajay Devgn gives one of his career-best performances (after Zakhm, Raincoat, and Omkara) as the no-nonsense master on-field strategist Indian coach. His Rahim doesn’t break into robust Sattar Minute Hain Tumhare Paas monologues to inspire the team but is equally effective with sparse dialogue baazi—he mostly lets his eyes do the talking-- after a player of the opponent team gravely injures one of his players during a match, he just looks at his team and simply says ‘Iska badla chahiye mujhe’, that is enough to get the team clinch the win, or when he says that he doesn’t want to see  members as individual players but as a unified team, it gets the job done. Priyamani as Rahim’s wife is effective and gives a restrained performance. Her attempts at learning English at her husband’s behest give the movie some of its lighter moments, but the writing ensures you laugh with her and not at her.


The casting genius of the movie requires a special mention. The resemblance between the charismatic Chuni Goswami and Amartya Ray is almost shocking! SlowCheeta aka Chaitanya Sharma as PK Banerjee is an equally great casting choice. And apart from looking the part, both the actors do a fabulous job of becoming the characters. Tejas Ravishankar as Peter Thangaraj is also impactful as is Davinder Gill as Jarnail Singh. In fact, these young bunch of actors are so good as these characters, who were stars in their own right, that you are left yearning for a spin-off of each. A special mention must also be made of Abhilash Thapliyal as Dev Mattew, the commentator.


Baharul Islam as Anjan gets the job done, but it is Rudranil Ghosh as the lame groveler Shubhankar who gets the raw deal from the writers. His character is written in broad strokes; the actor tries hard and even uses his talent for comedy at times to stop the character from becoming a caricature. Gajraj Rao as Roy Chaudhary, the influential newspaper editor who embarks on an ego-fueled battle against Rahim, faces the same predicament— most of his scenes where he is watching a football match in the stadium are midshots of him making faces with stock and archaic ‘scheming villain’ expressions. His act is further weighed down by a horrible wig. But being the brilliant actor he is, he still manages to humanise the stilted character to a large degree. Rao is exceptionally good in scenes where Roy Chaudhary realises his mistake, understands Rahim’s brilliance, switches sides, and starts respecting his dedication towards the game. Also, he gets the Bengali accent spot-on.

The songs composed by AR Rahman and penned by Manoj Muntashir are impactful. Team India Hain Hum, with robust lyrics like “Jaan lelo aaj hamari Fir dikhenge kal se/ Dar ko jaake bol de ki dar bhi darta humse,” is a rousing anthem penned by Manoj Muntashir, Davinder Singh, SlowCheeta that celebrates the fighting spirit, while Ghar aaya mera Mirza is vintage Rahman and almost transports one to a spiritual space.


The verdict

Paying a tribute to the golden era of Indian football (1951 to 1962) Amit Sharma’s sports drama focuses on the awe-inspiring journey of its chief architect, Syed Abdul Rahim, the Indian football team coach whose decade-long career was bookended with 2 Asian Games golds (although the first one is largely missing in the movie)—the only two Indian football team ever won.


Ajay Devgn gives one of his career-best performances as the master on-field strategist. Devgn plays Rahim with a quiet confidence and subdued swagger. It is a technically brilliant and well-acted movie — the football matches are so well-crafted that even a football virgin like me got sucked into the game. The movie is not jingoistic or overly preachy or melodramatic. What is also commendable is that the movie does not portray Rahim as a ‘Muslim coach’ but just as an Indian coach. Although an Eid release, the secularism of the movie, especially in today’s times comes as a breath of fresh air.


Maidaan is definitely one of the best sports biopics to have come out of Bollywood. It is an engrossing and entertaining movie that sucks you in and keeps you hooked even if you are not a sports enthusiast (you might even catch yourself unintentionally jumping out of your seat cheering loudly for Team India a few times!). And that is good cinema indeed.


However, there are a few creative liberties taken; one can say that Sharma stays honest to the craft if not totally faithful to the actual story.

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