I have a confession to make. I have given this a lot of thought and it has not been an easy decision. The deceptively comforting thing about writing is the fact that you don’t really have to worry about the reactions and the repercussions to what you write as you are fooled into believing you are fairly well insulated from them. Here goes. I am a sucker for the underdog sports movie. There. I have said it. Judge me if you want but I am sure I am not the only one.
Steps one to four
It is baffling that a genre whose core premise has been unchanged through decades of rinse-wash-repeat cycles continues to appeal and entertain. At the risk of making a presumptuous oversimplification, the underdog movie has for ages, faithfully stuck to four distinct phases. I choose to call them – the setup, the build up, the setback, and the comeback. The setup is the introduction of the protagonists against whom all odds are stacked and whose skill and talent are the only thing going for them. The setup also establishes the primary obstacle in their path to glory as well as the all important end goal of their endeavor. The choice of obstacles has been diverse, racial tensions in Remember the Titans, imperialist rulers in Lagaan, or incompatibility and infighting within the team in Chak de India. The aim of the the setup is to merely pique your interest as to how these protagonists are going to scale the seemingly insurmountable. However, the key to a good underdog movie is its build up phase which usually marks the entry of the “galvanizer” who in most cases is the coach assigned the unenviable task of straightening out, shaping up and shepherding the protagonists to achieve the impossible. The travails of the coach, the dynamics of the coach-protagonist relationship and the gradual unearthing of the latent winning abilities of the underdogs draws you in and you are ready to invest your interest and your support in them.
Okay, now that they are doing well, and you are well and truly involved comes the time to pull the rug from under your feet and the setback does precisely that. A new obstacle appears; a key player is hurt, defects or even worse dies; or the existing obstacle assumes greater proportions due to a change of tact. Just when you thought the end was near, it is pushed farther away from their reach. As you are subject to a tantalizing wait as to how things are going to unfurl, arrives the comeback. After making you think that all was lost and done and dusted, help arrives from where you least expected, and a turnaround occurs that you never saw coming and after a goose bump causing, thrilling finale, the underdog emerges victor. Now, one might argue that movies are as much about ‘the how’ as they are about ‘the what’. Though the genre has continually used these stock elements, every now and then there has been a movie which has captivated us by the way these were presented. But ignoring those exceptions, it is hard to understand how demanding movie watchers who tend to be put off by monotony and repetitiveness fall for the underdog movie again and again.
Reel vs. real
In the process of writing this article, I had an interesting exchange with my creative editor. I had taken a stand where I was being extremely dismissive of the fact that underdog movies are used in the corporate world with an intent to motivate. To take things further, I learnt that Chak De India has become part of curriculum at business schools. Now I was, and still am skeptical about whether a movie, how much ever it affects you, can spur you on to actions in real life. As much as I am exhilarated by a good underdog movie, I do not find myself buoyed enough for that exhilaration to affect the way I act. On the other hand watching a team I support win a tight game, coming back from behind, or seeing a lower ranked player upset a top ranking one has given me a momentary rush to go on and put in a wee bit of extra effort into what I am doing. Can a movie in spite of its emotional impact ever be as inspiring as reality? I would think that a replay of a real game can be lot more inspirational for a corporate team.
But, my editor offered a refreshing perspective, one that I had not even considered. I was totally focused on the emotional aspects of watching an underdog movie, so much so that I failed to see the strategic side to it. My editor’s view was that the underdog movie offers a rare opportunity to take a behind the scene looks of team management, leadership and game planning, things you do not get to see a lot in a real game. Now, even though these things are often exaggerated for effect in a movie, one cannot ignore the underlying reality. There is a small team management lesson to be learnt in Shah Rukh Khan’s part non-confrontational, part assertive approach in handling the disparate personalities in his team in Chak De India. It might not be an entirely new or original one, but, the movie does convey its effectiveness, better than a classroom lesson any day.
As much as I like to believe I am a connoisseur of movies, with rather refined tastes, I rarely pass the opportunity to watch and enjoy an underdog sports movie. However, in an attempt to do some damage control and restore my reputation as a seeker of substance in movies, let me leave you with a film recommendation, one that is obscure and old enough to fool you into believing in my ‘cinema cred’ again. One of my favorites in this genre is a low key, understated movie called Cool Runnings which is loosely based on the real life story of a Jamaican bobsled team competing in the winter Olympics. Other than the wackiness of the story of a team of guys from a land of beaches attempting to compete in a winter sport and the absolutely adorable Jamaican accent they speak with, I like the fact that this movie recognises that trying is as important as, if not more than, winning and makes this rather obvious observation in its own funny little way.