The blossoming career of a talented young badminton player is cut short by a conspiracy. Angry and bitter, he turns his back on the game he loves. Love-All, a sports drama written and directed by Sudhanshu Sharma, begins with the death of one dream and then, expectedly, trains the spotlight on the birth of another.
The two dreams are separated by two decades. The man who vows never to play again is transferred to the railway colony in Bhopal where he learnt the ropes of the game. With him are his wife, a school-going son (the focal point of an incipient pursuit that forms the crux of the film) and a suitcase containing a badminton racquet that has seen better days.
It might at first flush seem to be a minor variation on a triumph-of-the-underdog drama, but Love-All does not deviate from a time-worn narrative template. Unbeknownst to his father, a boy strays into badminton because playing a sport is compulsory in his new school.
He takes to the game like a fish to water but must reckon with a series of obstacles – the first and foremost being his father’s dispiriting lack of enthusiasm for sport in general – in order to make headway on the badminton court.
Love-All is toplined by Kay Kay Menon, who delivers a consciously low-voltage performance as Siddharth Sharma, the grown-up, crusty version of a gifted boy driven out of badminton by a powerful clique and forced to accept a menial job in the railways.
Twenty years later, his son, Aaditya (Ark Jain), gravitates towards the sport egged on by his mother, Jaya (Shriswara Dubey), schoolteacher Soma (Swastika Mukherjee), one half of an abortive love story from years past, and an old pal of his father’s, Vijendra (Sumit Arora), who owns a sports goods shop.
Several real-life badminton players have significant onscreen roles in Love-All. Their presence lends authenticity to the sporting action that the film stages in service of an otherwise facile drama about the struggles of a young prodigy in the face of great adversity.
While underlining the sweat and blood that go into the task of attaining excellence in any sport, the story plays out on predictable lines, harping upon cliches about life and dreams. Most sports films begin when the protagonist is down for the count and end with a glorious comeback. Love-All is no different.
A middle-class boy is pitted against a cocky rival from a privileged background, Shourya (Kabir Verma), who has the blessings of the head of the local badminton association, Jay Pratap Singh (Raja Bundela).
The mandarin is Shourya’s grandfather. He is also the badminton official who scuttled the career of Siddharth Sharma (played as a young boy by Deep Rambhiya). So, what pans out in the next 90 minutes or so is an account of a man wronged settling scores by backing his son to the hilt.
That is all there is to Love-All. Is it enough? Perhaps not. When Siddharth returns to Bhopal, Pandeyji (Atul Shrivastava), the man next door, says casually that he is relieved and happy that his new neighbour is, like him, a Brahmin. Siddharth does not react to the observation either in that instant or anytime later. Does he approve of Pandeyji’s narrow-mindedness?
Love-All does not clear that doubt nor does it in any way seek to probe the country’s social fault lines. Yes, there is in here a man named Ansari (Robin Das) in the guise of an avuncular and supportive caretaker of the old badminton stadium to which a young Siddharth had free access after school hours.
In a scene late in the film, Pandeyji, the caste-conscious railwayman, hugs Ansari in the spectators’ gallery when Aaditya earns a crucial point. The image flashes by without any special emphasis being placed on it. At no point does Love-All have anything expressly to say about the unifying power of sport. And that is a missed opportunity.
At another point, Siddharth’s ex-flame asserts the ennobling potential of sports. When you play a sport, you become a better human being, she says. But given the kind of sourpuss he is, Siddharth belies that assertion. To be sure, he has a change of heart in the nick of time to propel the story forward.
The second half of Love-All is longer than the first by 20 minutes and a bit. The extended time is devoted to a series of matches played as part of a sub-junior national tournament in which Shourya, the No. 1, and Aaditya, a wild card, battle to stay alive in the championship.
The commentary that accompanies the games are more distracting than helpful. It makes one wonder if there is a way the makers of Indian sports films can ever devise a narrative device that would do away with the need for the kind of hackneyed, intrusive and rudimentary chatter that is passed off as description of the action unfolding on the screen.
Mercifully, with the youngsters in the film being actual shuttlers, the dynamics of the sport we see on the screen are never in danger of hitting false notes. That is the film’s key strength – when the attention is on badminton, it is squarely on badminton.
In a passage that paves the way for the climax, a crisis is engineered in a contrived manner that takes away from the ‘realism’ of the rest of the scenes on the court and on the sidelines. But it sparks a confrontation that puts the shuttlecock in the politician’s court and calls out the myopic, self-serving methods that men of his ilk use to retain control over the sport’s resources.
The courtside slanging match between an arrogant minister and a genuine lover of badminton reveals two sides of a harsh truth that bedevils virtually every major sport in this country where politicians refuse to let go of their vice-like grip on cash-rich associations.
Kay Kay Menon in a demonstration of efficacious underplaying, lets badminton take precedence over his role, which he performs without resorting to explicitly dramatic means.
The two women in the cast, Swastika Mukherjee and Shriswara Dubey, aren’t reduced to insignificance by any stretch of the imagination, but since Love-All is about the sport more than anything else, they have to be content to stay, literally speaking, on the sidelines of the action.
Badminton is the clear winner in Love-All. As for the film itself, it could have put a few more points on the board to show for its undeniably well-meaning effort.
Kay Kay Menon, Shriswara, Swastika Mukherjee and Atul Shrivastav