A sports movie is never really about the sport the film is centred upon.
The sport is nothing more than a means to drive the story forward, usually revolving around an underdog – a person the audience immediately wants to cheer on as he or she overcomes a steep obstacle.
Cliches notwithstanding, this genre undeniably provides the audience with a sense of hope and jubilance because by the end of the movie the protagonist is a winner in some shape or form.
It’s a formula that Bollywood producer/actor Aamir Khan has used for his hit films Lagaan (2001) and Dangal (2016). The former revolves around cricket while the latter is focused on wrestling.
Both these films are riveting with likeable characters who rise above their circumstances to achieve impossible victories.
Famous Hollywood examples include Raging Bull, Rocky, The Wrestler, Million Dollar Baby, Bull Durham, Field Of Dreams, The Blind Side, The Natural, Friday Night Lights, Any Given Sunday, Chariots Of Fire, Ali and A League Of Their Own. Most of these films have been nominated for Oscars or have won accolades.
Scenes like Rocky running up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Arts during his training in Rocky and the iconic opening sequence of runners on the beach in Chariots Of Fire are simply unforgettable.
What all these films have in common is, they make the audience go through a gamut of emotions – trepidation of the challenge ahead for the character, choking back a sob, then in a complete wreck with unstoppable tears, and finally pumping our arms with joy and exclaiming ‘YES!’ when the protagonist overcomes the hurdle in their chosen arena. In short, we go through the journey alongside the characters.
Sangeeta Krishnasamy, one of the producers of next year’s film Adiwiraku 2 – The Gemencheh Boys, said this about the genre: “I think sports movies are important because it usually deals with a zero to a hero situation which almost everyone can relate to.
“And when a film is based on a true story, the audiences are drawn to watch it to get a better understanding of the journey of the people involved. Also, their true stories do not only inspire the audience, but also perhaps show the younger generation that heroes are not born, they are made. This is what you can expect from The Gemencheh Boys.”
The film is a follow-up feature highlighting real-life heroes after the 29th Malaysia Film Festival Best Film Adiwiraku, starring Sangeeta. Adiwiraku 2 – The Gemencheh Boys looks at the younger days of sportsman Shafiq Sharif, who was a member of the Malaysian cricket team that won the gold medal at the 2017 South-East Asian Games.
One of the earliest Malaysian films in recent times to venture into the sports genre was the 2005 drama Gol & Gincu, revolving around futsal.
It was met with success and the-then newcomers Nur Fazura, Sazzy Falak and Ashraf Sinclair all rose to fame. In 2006, the film was adapted into a TV show and just last year, Gol & Gincu Vol. 2 opened in cinemas with Diana Danielle and Ummi Nazeera headlining it.
In 2015, Saw Teong Hin told the story of football through the eyes of a young fan in Jejak Warriors.
Perhaps the most successful Malaysian sports movie so far is the 2016 title OlaBola, which earned RM16.67mil at the box office. Directed by Chiu Keng Guan, with a budget of RM5mil, OlaBola is based on the time when the Malaysian football team, Harimau Malaya, got a place in the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, Russia. The team, however, didn’t go as Malaysia boycotted this particular Olympics.
OlaBola was nominated in 15 categories of Malaysia Film Festival, winning four of them. Its theme song, sung by Zee Avi, was named the Best Original Theme Song at the Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival that same year.
In 2018, the film was turned into a musical OlaBola The Musical and was staged in Istana Budaya. A sequel was made, OlaBola Musical 2, and staged early this year. Right now, OlaBola Musical Merdeka Tour is happening, with the first performance taking place in Penang on Aug 31.
Likewise, last year’s Lee Chong Wei: Rise Of The Legend – a biopic on the now-retired badminton player Lee Chong Wei – penetrated not only Malaysian market, but travelled to China and Taiwan.
While these past films were received well by audiences, The Gemencheh Boys director Eric Ong argues that not all sports movies are automatically a winner. He explained: “(The success of a sports movie) really depends on whether the sport is popular in the country or not. In Malaysia, the most popular sports are football and badminton, (but) never cricket.”
Nonetheless, in the case of The Gemencheh Boys, Ong hopes “that Malaysians will appreciate sports movies because of the story and not because of the sports.”
Anything is possible
While waiting for The Gemencheh Boys to open in March, two local sports film are making its rounds soon. Sangkar, which opens in cinemas today, is hailed as Malaysia’s first Malay MMA film.
Starring Zul Ariffin and Remy Ishak, it has a MMA fighter using dirty tactics to win in the ring and later get into a fight with the opponent outside of the ring, hurting him badly.
Realising too late of his wrong deed, he tries to find a way to redeem himself, both as a fighter and as a man.
Meanwhile, Suatu Ketika (Sept 12) is set before 1957 Merdeka, and it revolves around a football team comprising of kampung boys - lacking in uniform and even shoes but not spirit – playing against a team of well-equipped British schoolboys.
(Coincidentally, both Adiwiraku 2 and Suatu Ketika features a young cast scouted especially for the respective films, as well as Pekin Ibrahim playing the role of a teacher in the films.)
Datuk Zainal Abidin, who wrote and sings the theme song Ayuhlah for Suatu Ketika, believes firmly in the fighting spirit quality that Suatu Ketika promotes.
“Yes, the film has a somewhat predictable storyline, but the message it tries to convey is very inspiring,” Zainal said.
“When playing a game, it doesn’t matter whether we win or lose, because the most important thing is to participate wholly and to give it our best. That’s what I have encapsulated in the song Ayuhlah: Kalau nak menang tak senang, kalau kalah tak salah (If you want to win, it’s not easy, if you lose, it’s not wrong).”
Besides the entertainment value, the themes featured in a sports film can easily promote patriotism too.
Suatu Ketika actor Nam Ron agreed with this notion: “Sports is one of the ways that can bring people together. Although we have racial and disintegration issues in some sectors right now, when we watch a match featuring Lee Chong Wei, for example, every Malaysian – no matter the race or religion – will support him because he represents our nation. So sports plays an important role in creating unity.
“And Suatu Ketika carries the element of unity and promotes the aspects of integration which is what our country is all about.”
Sangkar producer Gayatri Su-Lin Pillai added: “To me, sports is raceless. It just is, not only in Malaysia but everywhere.
“Take Super Bowl for example, most Malaysians don’t watch the (American football) but we watch the excitement around it.
“In Malaysia, we follow certain sports faithfully like badminton and when an international match is on and Malaysia is represented in this field, regardless of whether you’re Malay, Chinese or Indian, we are equally proud of that representation or win.
"If you watch MMA, the fighters and the audiences are made up of different races. So I think sports is a good way to get people to feel patriotic because we really come together to support our Malaysian sportsmen and sportswomen.
“And sports movie, in some ways, is an extension of that.”