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MS Dhoni: The Untold Story's weekend success a good sign for sports biopics?

The latest entry to the sports biopic genre has broken through with its weekend return of Rs62 crore, beating the collections of Mary Kom and Bhaag Milkha Bhaag.

Shriram Iyengar

Sports biopics are a rage among Indian film audiences, but not at the box office. The story in the trade has been that biopics tend to do average business on the whole, and never break through into the same space as a commercial hit. In recent years, Hindi cinema has seen an increased interest in the genre of biopics. Neeraj Pandey's biopic on MS Dhoni comes close on the heels of Neerja and Azhar which released earlier this year. But going by its performance at the counters so far, it might soon leave them all behind. 

The most successful sports biopics in recent times were the Priyanka Chopra-starrer Mary Kom (2014) and Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra's Bhaag Milkha Bhag (2013). Both films earned critical and commercial appreciation. Both films won National awards. However, their box-office returns on the first weekend were low in comparison to M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story. Bhaag Milkha Bhaag earned a gross of Rs31.16 crore on its first weekend while Mary Kom punched its way through to Rs29.88 crore. 

Mary Kom (2014) earned Rs29.88 crore on its first weekend

By this count, Sushant Singh Rajput's turn as Dhoni has raked in a spectacular Rs62 crore. This is twice the revenue earned by either film on its first weekend, and far bigger than the revenue any other sports biopic has made so far. Pandey's film is only the second biopic based on a cricketer. The previous one, Azhar (2016), did not perform well at all.

Azhar (2016) managed a meagre Rs18.98 crore on its opening weekend.

In many ways, Azhar was the perfect competitor to M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story. Both are films based on former Indian captains. But unlike Pandey's film, Azhar only managed Rs18.98 crore on its first weekend and ended its theatrical run with just Rs43.93 crore in gross revenue. The Sushant Singh Rajput-starrer has exceeded Azhar's lifetime earnings in one weekend.

The acclaimed Neerja (2016) did not fare much better. The Sonam Kapoor-starrer managed to earn Rs21.99 crore on its first weekend, and went on to make Rs71 crore as its lifetime earnings in India.

However, Dhoni's first-weekend earning of Rs62 crore is put into context by the fact that Dhoni is the most expensive sports biopic made in India so far. The film's overall budget is believed to be Rs80 crore. In comparison, Mary Kom was made on a budget of Rs35 crore while Bhaag Milkha Bhaag cost Rs50 crore.

However, there are many things going for Rajput's cricket adventure, including the phenomenon of Brand Dhoni. The cricketer is one of the new youth icons outside the pantheon of Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and Saurav Ganguly. He is also one of the most recognised faces with a pan-India appeal. This adds to the growing interest in the film in the South as well. Though some critics have pointed to the lack of a villain or elements of drama in the film, Pandey has managed to structure it well around Dhoni's early struggle, avoiding the controversies his captaincy might have resulted in and dodging a minefield that was responsible for the failure of Azhar. Also, unlike Azhar, the protagonist of Pandey's film is loved, successful, and still in the limelight.

With its first-weekend earnings of Rs62 crore, M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story has already been declared a hit and is expected to touch Rs100 crore over the next week. If it does so, it will become the first cricket biopic in Hindi cinema to touch the mark. It will also hit a boundary that sport biopics have struggled to cross. This might finally lay to bed the theory that sports biopics are great as a cinematic idea but lack box-office charm.