A case of small-town blues

Aditya Mani Jha | Updated on March 10, 2018 Published on October 07, 2016

Working class hero: A still from the film Dhoni: The Untold Story, featuring Sushant Singh Rajput as MS Dhoni   -  Special arrangement

A pair of smartly executed scenes in Dhoni: The Untold Story explains a few typically middle-class insecurities expertly

There are a lot of deft touches in Neeraj Pandey’s Dhoni: The Untold Story, perhaps reflecting its subject’s expanded cricketing repertoire for the last two years or so (reverse-paddles! inside-out lofts over cover!). But the one I chuckled at the most came well into the second half, when Dhoni (Sushant Singh Rajput) had finished his first three-four games as Team India wicketkeeper. He was run out for a first-ball duck in his debut game, scoring a meagre 19 in his first three innings combined. Watching him get out, forcing the pace in the slog overs, his father Pan Singh (Anupam Kher, playing the Ranchi version of his mousy Kamal Khosla from Khosla Ka Ghosla) shouts in frustration before adding, “ Aur yeh baal kyun nahi kaatta hai?” (And why doesn’t he cut his hair?). As if his streaked lion’s mane was to blame for Dhoni’s teething troubles.

This is completely in character for middle-class Bihari/Jharkhandi parents such as my own, even though my upbringing was a bit more privileged than Dhoni’s. Flamboyance is shorthand for evil. Better the diligent crow (we even have a word for it: kaak-cheshthaa, literally ‘crow-like diligence’) than the preening peacock. The worker bee is best of all. Youngsters with Dhoni manes in the first flush of his stardom (2005-6) were reprimanded at home and in school, a typically Jharkhandi burn being “Zyaada over-smart mat bano”: don’t be ‘over-smart’.

I find bowdlerised lip-lashings like ‘over-smart’ or the equally delightful ‘style mat maro’ to be revelatory in the extreme. Scratch a little and the veneer peels off like a face pack, revealing a smorgasbord of middle-class insecurities. ‘Style mat maro’ is, on the face of it, a reminder to not be a show-off. But in truth, it is used (by parents, teachers and friends alike) to smother individuality, to nip differences in the bud, particularly for young women who choose to argue, answer back, wear what they like or challenge the herd otherwise. ‘Over-smart’ is, in theory, meant to diss those too enmeshed in their privilege to notice that they’re being jerks. In truth, it is used most often by grown-ups to end conversations where the child is answering back or calling them out for their bullshit.

These phrases show an instinctive mistrust of values seen as desirable in an elite, metropolitan setting: a Delhi kid would be encouraged to discover her own style, for instance. Even if she expressed something bookish or pretentious, she would be encouraged to carry on, to be smarter, with no grown-up over-smart aleck in the horizon to bring her down. Why, then, are these same values so reviled in Ranchi and Jamshedpur?

The answer, I feel, is expressed in another Pan Singh truism. When he finds out that his son has been offered a job as a ticket collector by Indian Railways, he thinks that Dhoni has it made now. “Ticket collector se badi cheez kya ho sakti hai?” he wonders: what could be bigger than being a ticket collector? For small-town parents, safety lies in numbers, in the knowledge that their children are on a path that has been ISO-approved for success. At last count, these paths were as many as three for the upper middle-class: doctors, engineers (they come with a detachable MBA extension) and the Indian Administrative Service. For lower income middle-class households like Pan Singh’s, it’s bankers and clerks and yes, ticket collectors. We are still ashamed of lawyers (‘court-kachehri’ carries the unmistakeable whiff of criminal proximity, meant to be avoided at all costs) and most of us are scared to say ‘entrepreneur’, lest we pronounce it wrong.

For me, the best parts of Dhoni were those moments where we realise that the man is every bit a product of his surroundings, especially when he rises above them to thrive in the high-pressure, rarefied air of Indian cricket administration. Part of Dhoni’s adaptation was in realising that small-town grittiness needs to be preserved but small-town insecurities need to be confronted and defeated.

The film’s most astute scene, in my opinion, depicts the final of the Cooch Behar Trophy Final of 1999: Bihar vs Punjab. During this match, Dhoni meets his future teammate Yuvraj Singh for the first time. After the end of the first day’s play, Bihar has the upper hand, thanks to Dhoni’s half-century. But later that night, Dhoni and his teammates watch the handsome, strapping Yuvraj walking across a basketball court as if he owned it, all earphones and unruly locks, wheeling his kitbag before riding off into the night, vroom! on a motorcycle. “ Kya player hai!” says one of Dhoni’s teammates, never mind that none of them has actually seen him bat.

Significantly, we cut straight to the near future, where a thoughtful Dhoni explains to his friends what happened next — Punjab thrashed them silly on days two to four, piling up a mammoth 800 plus runs, 358 of them from the bat of Yuvraj. We lost the match on the basketball court, Dhoni observes: the Bihari kids were awestruck, plain and simple.

In one of the many pieces of actual on-ground footage Rajput finds himself inserted in, Dhoni is awarded the Man of the Match prize after sealing a tricky Lahore chase in 2006; alongside Yuvraj, by the way. Pervez Musharraf, then President of Pakistan, compliments Dhoni on his long hair, advising him to stick to this look. He did too, for quite a while, until he didn’t.

It takes a big man to stick to his roots. It takes an even bigger one to realise when pruning is necessary.

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Published on October 07, 2016
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