One can go on two ways when writing about a sports biopic. One would be based on how they perceive a biopic that often tends to checklist key historical events while painting a sprawling look at the legacies of the people involved. The other would be based on how they want the film to upend the conventional template of the genre to showcase its themes in a more customized way. It’s not that these two couldn’t be streamlined from a filmmaker’s individual perspective. However, the anticipation behind boxing in the way such films are perceived is perhaps secondary to how one-noted the genre tends to be most of the time. With the latter approach, however, one inadvertently negates the sensibilities of what avenue the film is functioning at.

Amit Ravindranath Sharma’s “Maidaan” has been in the making for over five years. It tells the story of Syed Abdul Rahim, the coach whose individual story has been relatively unknown in the popular discourse for decades—something that is surprising, to say the least, considering how the man singlehandedly revolutionized Indian football during the country’s nascent years of independence.

The film, which saw multiple delays even after going into post-production, opens with the country’s infamous 10-1 ‘barefeet’ drubbing by Yugoslavia at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. Henceforth, it chronicles a decade of Rahim’s life, all the way leading to the triumphs and tribulations of the 1962 Asian Games. We’ve seen the story of a maverick coach who assembles young rookies from across the country before. What makes “Maidaan” different then is the consistent mood of a somber undercurrent with context to India’s relationship with the sport. Amidst this and the agonizing years that Rahim spent fighting his terminal illness came a time when football drove the aspirations of the youth of the newly independent nation.

Maidaan (2024) Movie Review
A still from “Maidaan” (2024) starring Ajay Devgn as Syed Abdul Rahim.

The best thing about the film is how it never romanticizes this notion, even while marginally exploiting the sentiment underscoring it. The focal point remains on the drive to chase and prove the country’s worth in a sport that could finally make it seen and heard in the global order. Channeling this vision and vigor through a man thwarted for his own identity could’ve made for a powerful conceit. But “Maidaan” ‘s undoing is its failure to fully commit to the man’s story. We know Rahim has a knack for finding worthy players to make India big, but we never really see him hassle in search of them. We know coaching is the only thing he’s probably ever been good at, yet we never get a feeling of where that passion emanated from.

Here is a Muslim man in a recently partitioned nation who’s overcome familial and social problems to become the man to bring us international prestige. What could’ve been a riveting character study without the need to rely on any credulity-straining contrivances becomes an opportunity the film trails over with hesitation. What comes across as more frustrating is that it does so with a looming sense of victim complex.

The extensive team of co-writers doesn’t spend much time delving into big-picture questions, and while it’s content to trade in stereotypes when the camera wanders to the less affluent parts of the country in search of talent, it reduces figures who are meant to be the protagonist’s nemesis to cardboard pieces, flattening the prospects of the central conflict.

That’s not to say the film doesn’t commit to the technical side of things. Russian cinematographer Andrey Valantsov’s camera deftly tracks men running with the purpose of their dignity, while the scenes in closed rooms around corrupt sports administrators successfully tap into the paranoia Rahim finds himself in. The score by A. R. Rahman and the sports choreography, in particular, notch up the familial beats with a reinvigorating sense of inspiring awe. This ensures the film to stay consistently engaging and entertaining over its 3-hour runtime.

But the story of Rahim should’ve towered the prospects of a crowd-pleaser biopic template. The biggest flaw of “Maidaan” isn’t that the film doesn’t challenge the established playbook for sports dramas. But that it neither fully espouses the notions and sensibilities of the man at its center nor the newly evolving country around him that he was so committed to filling with pride. But as ever in Bollywood, the based-on-a-true-story defense, along with the victimhood baked into the story, will provide a substantial cover to a film that otherwise could’ve been great had it not faltered at chasing its themes more committedly.

Read More: The Top 25 Best Sports Movies of All-Time

Maidaan (2024) Movie Links: IMDb, Wikipedia, Letterboxd
Maidaan (2024) Movie Cast: Ajay Devgn, Priyamani, Gajraj Rao
Maidaan (2024) Movie Genre: Drama | Runtime: 181 mins
Where to watch Maidaan

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