Dangal, Mukkabaaz and more: Our favourite sports films of the decade

Director Anurag Kashyap produced a singular, brawling, unforgettable film with Mukkabaaz Eros International

From the freedom movement to lower-caste assertion, from race and gender issues to dirty administration politics, our picks for the five best sports films of the decade cover a wide swathe. In each case, sport is only a vehicle to tell the larger story; these are all really stories about life around us, where sport is an outlet for dreams and aspirations. And, ultimately, to bring people together.

Mukkabaaz, Hindi (2017)

Sharda Ugra

Sharda Ugra is a senior editor for ESPN India and ESPNcricinfo.

In a decade churning out feel-good sports biopics with merabharatmahaan overtones, Mukkabaaz stood the genre on its head with jaw-dropping clarity. The story of a small-town boxer is both a clear-eyed account of where success in Indian sport comes from, and a sharp commentary on contemporary India.

Scriptwriter and lead actor Vineet Kumar Singh immersed himself in boxing, training alongside elite boxers without them knowing who he was and from it, director Anurag Kashyap produced a singular, brawling, unforgettable film.

There is sometimes too much happening in Mukkabaaz but the acting remains effortless, the boxing spot-on, the love story moving and the film's denouement its own piece of genius. Plus there's Paintra, the song written by Singh, produced by EDM guru Nucleya, sung by rapper Divine, which is a summary of Indian sport in sharp, crisp three minutes. As of now, Mukkabaaz is my favourite sports movie. Ever.

Dangal, Hindi (2016)

Debdatta Sengupta

Debdatta Sengupta is a sub-editor for ESPN India.

There's one particular scene that defines Dangal for me. When Mahaveer Phogat (Aamir Khan) describes the scoring system involved in competitive wrestling to his girls Geeta and Babita, who are about to make a switch from the mud pit to the mat, there's a certain ingenuity. He uses a chalk and blackboard to write the scores, and describes all the rules in a desi, yet accurate fashion. It's not easy to mix entertainment with authenticity but Dangal manages that quite well.

Other than the emotional quotient in the father-daughter storyline, and everything else that comes with your everyday mainstream winning-a-medal-despite-all-odds film, you get clarity about the sport.

When Fatima Sana Shaikh's Geeta executes the big move -- the five-pointer -- in the final moments of the film, it is, of course, in tandem with filmy flashbacks of her father teaching her how to flip her opponent in a 'rainbow-like arc'. But what is impressive is that in that moment, she pulls the move off like an actual wrestler would. She, and the makers, make it look convincing - and that makes this film more than noteworthy for me in this decade.

Irudhi Suttru, Tamil (2016)

Anuj Vignesh

Anuj Vignesh is a senior sub-editor for ESPN India.

Irudhi Suttru treads on familiar ground and predictable beats - gifted but erratic boxer, disgraced coach out for redemption, corruption in the association - but the film compensates with extra heart and electrifying chemistry from the lead pair.

Madhavan, long associated (perhaps unfairly) with 'chocolate boy' roles, gets to flex his acting chops by playing against type as the hot-headed Prabhu, while debutant Ritika Singh fits in seamlessly opposite him as the equally fiery Madhi.

Melodrama is thankfully kept to a minimum, straying there only to feed us exposition about the do-or-die stakes in each of Madhi's bouts. Santosh Narayanan's pulpy score sets the mood wonderfully, while the editing remains crisp throughout the run-time, quickly scrubbing over what little flab exists in the screenplay.

As you might expect, love forms the emotional crux of the narrative, but in a neat subversion, the one shown here isn't a romance so much as it is a begrudging admiration and, later, deep affection for each other.

Prabhu's arc, in particular, is fascinating. The invincible, know-it-all coach is slowly unmasked to reveal a more vulnerable, self-doubting human inside. He is both Mr Miyagi as well as Rocky Balboa - a master of his craft, but one who ultimately thrives on being the underdog.

Both the mentor and mentee are on their own separate journeys of self-discovery, but those paths intertwine at crucial points, culminating in a heartwarming climax when Madhi and Prabhu finally embrace, their inner demons defeated at last.

Sudani from Nigeria, Malayalam (2018)

Susan Ninan

Susan Ninan is a staff writer for ESPN India.

In the slim pickings that has been this decade's fare of quality Indian sports movies, Sudani from Nigeria marks itself out for its heart-snagging moments and its lack of urgency in delivering a sanctimonious message.

The story revolves around an injured Samuel Robinson, a Nigerian player, convalescing at the home of cash-strapped football team manager Majeed, essayed by the ever-brilliant Soubin Shahir.

The North Kerala district of Mallapuram, where the movie is set, is home to Sevens football and the mad obsession for the game is shown through scenes like when Majeed forgets to inform the nurse of Samuel's drip bottle having to be changed because he was too caught up following a match on his phone. Or when he refers to his arranged marriage efforts as a 'selection camp'.

The second half overreaches with its attempts at melodrama but it can be forgiven for the overall tone of the movie. Take the scene where Majeed's mother Jameela and close friend Beeyumma take care of Samuel though they don't understand each other. Or Samuel fondly being called 'Sudu' (short for Sudani) by everyone in the village despite belonging to Nigeria because no one really cares much for geography. Or Majeed helping Samuel recover, thereby finding the empathy within him to mend a fractured relationship with his step-father. Football, in the end, is only a beautiful metaphor which conjoins them.

Egaro, Bengali (2011)

Debayan Sen

Debayan Sen is a senior assistant editor for ESPN India.

Egaro (Eleven) is a fictionalised account of the actual events that unfolded during the 1911 IFA Shield, when Mohun Bagan beat East Yorkshire Regiment to become the first Indian club to have won a domestic football tournament.

The depiction of the football is a major plus. The Bagan team's journey, from unsung outsiders to finalists, and then the final itself, is shown with some imaginative cinematography, with shots taken at ground level, moving in sync with the rolling ball.

The screenplay is also tight, in that the backstories of the squad members are shown, but don't come in the way of the narrative, which goes along at a quick pace and keeps you hooked throughout the movie.

There is also the theme song, 'Amader surjo maroon' which begins with lines to the effect of "Our sun is maroon, the green grass runs through our veins" as a hat-tip to the colours of the club. Sung by Kolkata's own Arijit Singh, this has become the default cheer of the Bagan fans at stadiums over the last few years.

The casting is honest, but a little more diligence could have been put in. There are local actors playing British characters, and those gaps show. There are a few other historic inaccuracies -- for instance, the experienced striker Abhilash Ghosh is shown as a youthful rookie -- but those could be put down to artistic license.