July 19, 2019

IBMD: Indian Basketball Movie Database

Imagine playing one on one, full-court basketball against the love of your life. You are a beautiful woman and he's a handsome man, and you are not just playing a game, but a game within the game. You want to defeat him, of course, because you're proud, and because he's riled up a gang of children around you to chant "girls can't play basketball". You want to prove them all wrong. But you also want to exert decades of pent-up frustration against this man. This man who was once your best friend, with whom you learned the game and honed your skills. This man, who years later, you find through the game again. And now, there's is something deeper in your connection. A little more chemistry. A little more passion. This isn't just one-on-one basketball. This is the beginning of a love story.

Now imagine you stop what you're doing mid-court to fix your sari.

Yes, you're playing in a sari.

Can you relate to this predicament? Have you ever fought for the game's honour against Cricket? Has basketball ever come in between your ambitions and parenthood? Is your dream to play one-on-one against the opposite sex so that you can eventually fall in love? Can you relate to using the help of a little extra-terrestrial to give your basketball team superpowers to defeat your bigger, badder opponents?

If you answered 'yes' to any of those scenarios above, congratulations, you're a lover of basketball in Indian cinema. As unlikely as it may be, there has been somewhat of an important and hilarious history of hoops and Indian films. Sometimes, basketball is only an important scene in the movie, highlighting the dramatic moment forever in the hearts of me and my fellow 'Hoopistanis'. Sometimes, basketball is a major plot device, setting in motion the cause and effect that leads to redemption or glory or heartbreak or a dance-break.

With this in mind, I present to you the comprehensive and running-list of IBMD, the Indian Basketball Movie Database. Several years ago, I'd written an article called 'Great Moments in Bollywood and Basketball', analysing memorable basketball-related scenes in three hit movies of the past few decades. The IBMD expands on that to include new movies and movies in Indian cinema (sometimes in other languages) outside the 'Bollywood' realm. In almost all these films, basketball was used as a vehicle or a metaphor to show true aspiration, a type of rise in one's status, an entry into an exclusive club. It is always a positive. Basketball mastery - whether used in a serious or a comical pretext, or an absurd one - is portrayed as a very special superpower.

There are many more films/moments out there that I hope to add to keep this list growing. Readers: please send me your suggestions of basketball scenes, not only in Indian cinema (of any language) but also in any streaming shows that we must pay attention to.

With that said, in order of release date, here is the IBMD:

Phool Aur Kaante (1991)

This early 90s hit was emblematic of its era: Action! Romance! Larger than life villains! Ajay Devgan (pre-Devgn) straddling two motorbikes at the same time! Perhaps more known for being Devgn's film debut, Phool Aur Kaante also features perhaps the earliest recorded hoops action in Indian film history, and all within the first fifteen minutes. In one scene, Devgn interrupts a terrible shootaround by his friends by dribbling the ball away into the locker room. In another, he is alone, shooting free throws - on the badminton court - going 4/4 from the line in less than ten seconds. Nothing better than a little a little forlorn basketball to get one's frustrations out, before beating up drug dealers in the very next scene. 

Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998)

It's only right that we begin with the most influential Indian film ever made about basketball. KKHH was released months after Michael Jordan hit his final shot for the Chicago Bulls, and propelled an entire generation of young Indian players to take up the game (and maybe find love with their childhood bestie in the process). A few years ago, I wrote a long essay 'Kuch Hoops Hota Hai' on the surprising legacy of this Karan Johar hit on Indian basketball, featuring interviews with many top players of the national team who swore about how this film urged them towards the game.

KKHH is filled with classic moments. Kajol playing in a sari. Shah Rukh Khan's weird dribble and obvious dirty fouls. The awkward sexual tension between the two players at a kids' summer camp. The film used basketball as the 'cool' and 'western' thing that Indians in KKHH's fantasy-land aspired to. The film of course became one of the highest-grossing Bollywood releases in history and won tonnes of Filmfare awards. Khan and Kajol were in the primes of their careers, a get-together of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen earlier in the 90s. They play basketball as high-schoolers and then again as reunited adults. Cue song. Cue romance. Cue Salman Khan in a cameo making a Jordan reference. This movie had everything.

Koi Mil Gaya (2003)

The Hrithik Roshan film is primarily a rip-off of ET and Forrest Gump, but for its basketball sequence midway, it took a little off of Space Jam, too. Roshan and his friends (all children) have made friends with a friendly alien creature called 'Jadoo' who can help them do things of supernatural athletic ability. At one point in the film, Roshan's team - the Paandavs - play against a mean-looking bunch called the 'Kasauli Tigers'.

From the sidelines, Jadoo waves his magic on the Paandavs and Roshan, helping the movie star dribble like Allen Iverson and dunk like Zion Williamson in a video-game cheat mode. The Tigers actually go on a 49-0 run at one point, and Jadoo needs the sun to instill his influence on the game. When the sun does show, the game turns, and Roshan slam dunks his way (with a very high usage rate, I might add) to a huge comeback. In the incredible game-deciding sequence, Jadoo-powered Roshan intercepts a shot, jumps, does three body flips in mid air to land his feet on top of the oppositions rim, and then drop the winner. Wow.

Dhoom 2 (2006)

Oh, you thought we were done with Roshan pretending to be a basketball savant? Let me take you a few years forward to Dhoom 2, the successful sequel to the international spy/sexy/action thriller. Like Khan and Kajol in KKHH, here are a couple of more actors in their prime: Roshan and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan. It's raining. It's night. There's a lot of leather. And Roshan drops the immortal words that are now the opening sequence of our Hoopdarshan podcast: "Yeh International game hai - Deemag is khela jata hai, gussey sey nahi" (This is an international game, played by the mind, not with anger).

He was talking about their sexy one-on-one game, of course, but this is Bollywood, so he was also talking about their international spy game. We get to see more of Roshan's questionable basketball skills. He travels a lot. He throws the ball into the basket instead of shooting it properly. Bachchan strips down to a tight mini-skirt. Roshan and Bachchan come awfully close to each other and drop flirtatious trash talk. I'm sorry, but Cricket could never be this romantic.

Ajinkya (2012)

I haven't yet seen an Indian film that uses basketball as a main plot-line as thoroughly as this small Marathi movie, Ajinkya. Ajinkya is about a basketball coach in Nagpur who is a relentless winner with a big ego. He wants his team to win every game by at least 25 points and has won the regional tournament for about 14 straight years. But then, some dumb things happen: 1) his wife wants to have a child, but he can't go with her to get her fertility results because of this year's tournament final; 2) he slaps his best three-point shooter for not wanting to practice and this player doesn't play for him in the final; 3) he loses the final and vows to give up basketball; 4) his wife - who can conceive now - doesn't want to conceive a child with him anymore; and 5) he leaves town alone heartbroken - without basketball and family - to work in Aurangabad.

The rest of the film is his redemption project in Aurangabad. Both the director (Tejas Deoskar) and leading man (Sandeep Kulkari) of this film have a hoops background, so even if the story itself is quite trash, the basketball emotions are realistic. The coach takes a bunch of rag-tag new players who don't know anything about the game in his new city and teaches them, and in returns, learns that having fun is more important than winning. They play the same tournament again and reach the finals. I won't spoil it any further. But conception is still involved. So is James Bond.

Vallinam (2014)

Shelf this one in 'TBD', as I've yet got a chance to watch this Tamil film and review it for its basketball moments. From early reports, I learned that the movie pitted basketball (the hero) vs. cricket (the villain). Directed by Arivazhaghan Venkatachalam, the film starred Tamil actor Nakul as the top basketball player who plays for India. Apparently, the final scene of the movie is a basketball game between the Indian team and a foreign team at an expensive set in Thiyagaraya Nagar in Chennai.

Half Girlfriend (2017)

Chetan Bhagat writes terrible books, but sometimes they make for good films. Half Girlfriend is not one of those good films. No, this one is about a romance that starts through basketball (have I heard this before?) in a fictional Delhi college between a girl from a rich, English-speaking family (Shraddha Kapoor) and a boy from a Hindi-speaking Bihari background (Arjun Kapoor). Despite their differences, they're both great basketball players and leaders of their respective women's and men's teams. Arjun coaxes Shraddha for a date through basketball, but she only wants to be his 'half' girlfriend. Which means, perhaps the equivalent of an NBA contract with a player option? They play a lot of one-one-one hoops, make a lot of NBA references, discuss their language differences, and sow the seeds of what will become deeper love later.

The NBA in India was actually heavily involved in partnering with this movie. NBA coaches worked with the two Kapoors in helping them look the part of hoopers on screen in production. References to LeBron and Durant and Curry are dropped liberally. NBA posters and insignia are seen often. The movie was even promoted around live NBA broadcasts in India in 2017. Anyways, a lot more happens after college for these two (basketball is mostly forgotten) and things get dramatic and sad and the Bill Gates Foundation is involved and the girl sings around in New York and the boy is drunk a lot. In the end, they get together, and basketball is involved again. I watched and reviewed this movie in great detail for its basketball stuff so you wouldn't have to.

Tarunyachya Lathevar (2017)

This Marathi film begins with two girls playing one-on-one in a dark indoor hall, right after one of those girls also practices her bharatnatyam skills on the same court. And we're off! This movie was directed/starred by the former president of the Maharashtra State Basketball Association (MSBA) and featured several actual Maharashtra players in action. The protagonist in the film loves basketball - as in, staring-lustfully-at-the-hoop-while-romantic-music-plays-in-the-background-for-way-too-long kinda love. There is a lot more basketball in this movie, including romance blossoming from basketball (of course), evil administrators, and of course, a big tournament. The game-scenes look organic and not choreographed, giving them a more realistic feel.

Chhichhore (2019)

One of the final films that budding young actor Sushant Singh Rajput starred in before his untimely death, Chhichhore is a college-sports comedy, a modern ode to the 1992 classic Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar. One of the earliest frames in the film is a basketball backcourt in a college campus, a foreshadowing of the sport that will play a major role in the film's eventual conclusion. The film takes place in two timelines, the present and the past. In the present, Raghav, the son of the separated couple Anirudh (Rajput) and and Maya (Shraddha Kapoor, in her second apperance in an IBMD film) attempts suicide after an academic failure. He is in critical condition, and ultimately, relies on stories and memories of his parents' college days to give him hope.

The 'past' timeline takes place in those college days of the parents. Anirudh (Ani) and motley crew of hilarious friends are the 'Losers' of Hostel-4 (H4). Ani ambitiously decides that H4 should put that reputation to rest by winning the colleges General Championship, a tournament of multiple sports that is always won by H3, the fancy and gifted arch-nemesis of H4. Through hilarious means of self-motivation, a little trickery, and some distraction, H4 get close enough to get themselves in contention for the championship - all they need are three more gold medals in chess, relay race, and basketball on the very last day. Through dramatic means, chess and track golds are secured.

That leaves basketball. H4 are led by Ani, who is supposedly a state-level player, and H3 are led by Raggie, a talented athlete and the film's smug villain. Unlike past Bollywood moments, this basketball game is actually very-well choreographed. Both teams seem to be using the motion offense, moving excellently without the ball, using picks and screens, and passing fluidly. Most of the buckets are mid-range jumpers. Layups are rare, threes are nonexistent - it's Daryl Morey's nightmare. H4 trailed by 12 at halftime, but as it is in all these basketball movies, the underdog 'good guys' made a huge comeback in the second. Eventually, it comes down to the final shot: H4 are down 2 with six seconds to go. Ani calls a timeout... and his 'radical' game-plan is - to attempt a three-pointer. Ani loses his man, catches the ball at the top of the key, and lets off a weird one-handed shot that reminds one of former India international Narender Grewal. The shot bounced all over the rim, a reminiscence of Kawhi Leonard's four-bounce Game 7 winning shot in 2019. But guess what - Ani misses!!!! It is a truly unexpected shock. The hero lost and let everyone down. But even in loss, he gains the respect of his opponent. The lesson we are left with is that it's not the result that matters - it's the effort. And it is perhaps this lesson that aids to Raghav recovering from his surgery in present day and living to provide the film a happy ending.

Chhalaang (2020)

Rising Bollywood star Rajkkumar Rao plays a slacker Haryanvi public school PT coach in the comedy Chhalaang ('Leap'). When he has time on his hand, his character Montu leads a group of right-wing goons to thrash and reprimand innocent couples hanging out together in public parks on Valentine's Day. Later, the daughter of one of these needlessly-harassed elder couples becomes Montu's co-worker - he is attracted to her and, after a little bit of traditional Bollywood persistence, she actually forgives him and considers him as a romantic partner. None of this is about basketball yet, but I wanted to set up the premise just so we are all clear on how absurd things are going so far. 

The rest of the film is about more such transformational moments of growth for Montu, and the biggest challenge comes when a well-trained rival coach is hired by the school. Montu and this other coach decide to confront their differences with an intra-school multi-sport contest in Basketball, Kabaddi, and Relay Racing. In true underdog fashion, Montu trains a bunch of underdog players in his gender-neutral lineup, and in the process, learns a little about maturity and responsibility etc. himself. A highlight here is the scene where the students perform a dribbling drill using cow-dung as obstacles instead of training cones. The basketball game is actually well choreographed and fairly entertaining for Bollywood's low standards - Montu's team loses because their best player - Pinky, a mixture of both finesse speed and bruising athleticism - is injured halfway. Nevertheless, the coach is happy that the kids gave their best and weren't completely embarrassed. Yay, sportsmanship! 


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