All sports movies need, first of all, an excellent and intuitive understanding of the sport in question. The film script about the underdog, or about politics, or about the socially disadvantaged player, can wait. The director has to look at designing the action on the field, both from the strategic perspective of the player, and from the layman’s view of the audience.
‘Soorma’ is not about a hockey team, but about a particular player in a specialist position. Till Sandeep Singh came along, the Indian team tended to lose matches, not due to inferior field play, but primarily because they were unable to convert penalty corners into goals. All other teams had formidable ‘hit-men’ to do the job, but India’s corners, of which they were awarded many, could be defended consistently by the opposing team and their goal-keeper.
The entry of Sandeep Singh rejuvenated Indian hockey. He had the most formidable ‘drag flick’, which he could fire into the goal at some of the highest speeds in the game. The fastest flick he recorded was at 145 KMPH, which meant that you could hardly see the ball as it flew into the net. Penalty corners started being converted at a much more rapid rate, and the Indian team started winning matches consistently. Known as ‘Flicker Singh’, he was a thorn in the flesh of opposing teams, and they were so demoralized by his expertise, that they focused on getting him yellow carded or injured before he got going.
For his narrative, Director Shaad Ali has decided to use a completely linear style, with no flashbacks at all. The first third of the movie has virtually no hockey. We look at the growing up of two brothers in Punjab and their training under a tyrannical coach (Danish Hussain). His obsession is corporal punishment. He does not give his 'students' the opportunity to learn any hockey skills at all. In the film, the only thing Sandeep (Diljit Dosanjh) gains from this most unpleasant introduction to the game, is to meet and fall in love with the coach’s daughter, Harpreet (Taapsee Pannu).
It is only when the older brother, Bikramjeet Singh (Angad Bedi), fails to make the Indian team, and turns his attention to training Sandeep, that the movie actually turns into a sports film. But by this time, it is a little too late for an introduction into the finer points of the game. The nuances are lost on us, and the result is a crash course in Indian hockey, and not a very convincing one.
Furthermore, the sense of speed in the game, and the technique involved, is not conveyed in cinema. The brilliance of stick work that you see in newsreel footage of international games is not visible on screen. A lot of the play seems stilted and rehearsed. Apart from the nicely shot final drag flick in the game against Pakistan in London that ends the hockey action in the movie, neither Diljit Dosanjh’s stick play, nor the camerawork, or the editing, convey any magic.
Where the film scores is in the description of the emotional connect between two brothers. Their inseparable bond from childhood, to hockey fame, to a devastating accident on a train, and thence to Sandeep's painfully slow rehabilitation in the game, is beautifully done. Also delightfully acted is the role of the Senior India coach, played by Vijay Raaz. His wry, deadpan humour keeps the film ticking over nicely.
'Soorma' is designed as an uplifting story of human triumph over seemingly insurmountable challenges. Had the hockey not been so underwhelming, it would have worked better.