Nearly all sports dramas have a formulaic, fluffy storyline, and usually fall flat because though the stories may be compelling, they often fall short in the department of original storytelling that goes well beyond the predictable fare.

Only a few such films are surprisingly fun to watch, mostly due to their high energy and the emotionally charged experience that they offer. This week's release, the Ajay Devgn-starrer 'Maidaan' is one such rare film that has its heart in the right place and narrates the story of the marvellous journey of Syed Abdul Rahim, the Indian football coach between 1952 and 1962.

Rahim revolutionised the sport in the country and it was because of him that the Indian football team, which played in the 4-2-4 combination, was once called the "Brazil of Asia".

It was thanks to his stewardship that the India team achieved superiority in both the technical department and tactical innovations.

The team went on to win gold medals at the Asian Games (1951 in New Delhi and 1962 in Jakarta) and even reached the semi-finals of the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne, making India the first Asian country to achieve this degree of success.

Written and directed by Amit Ravindernath Sharma and produced by Boney Kapoor and Zee Studios, the sports drama film stars Ajay Devgn, Priyamani and Gajraj Rao, focusing on a true story that has completely vanished from public memory. It is perhaps, all the din that surrounds cricket in our country that some fascinating tales never ever get told.

The three-hour film opens with India losing the match against Yugoslavia at the 1952 Olympic Games, largely because of injuries caused by the lack of football gear. It may come as a shock to many, but till 1952 the Indian team did not have gear of their own.

With no proper shoes on their feet, the players were asked to wrap cloth around their feet even when they were playing international matches. The Federation based out of Calcutta blamed the coach, Syed Abdul Rahim, entirely for the team's failure.

Rahim, in his defence, pointed to the absence of gear for the team members and insisted that some young talented players could have played better. He had said he should have been allowed to choose the players. He then went on to not only select his best team, but also make sure the national football team mastered new techniques and tactics too.

A victim of internal politics and targeted by senior journalists, played in the film by Gajaraj Rao and Rudranil Ghosh, for losing the match, Rahim managed to convince the governing body that he must be given a chance to train the boys.

What follows is bound to not leave the audience dry-eyed. Focusing more on the game and the skills used by the players, the coach teaches the team members how to make their winning moves and game-clinching throws.

Witness the wild beastly chases that bring a roaring stadium crowd up on its feet. The entire journey of the players is narrated so well that even non-football fans will be able to appreciate it.

When the team takes on the might of an established team such as South Korea and then Japan, one cannot but appreciate the earnest, inspirational and respectfully told biography of an influential yet forgotten Indian sports icon.

What also add to the film's strengths are its photography and music. Rahman does a great job of composing songs that would tug at your heart-strings and Tushar Kanti Ray's camerawork evokes the splendour of 1950s Calcutta. In addition to Ray, lensman Fyodor Lyass captures some of the intricate and tricky sports sequences, giving viewers a ringside view of what feels like live action. This 182-minute film is inspiring, and compassionate, and comes with a sly undercurrent of social commentary.

Thanks to spirited performances, the virtually unknown but extremely talented cast members -- notably, Chaitanya Sharma as P.K. Banerjee, Amartya Ray as Chuni Goswami, Davinder Gill as Jarnail Singh, Tanmay Bhattacharjee as Pradyut Burman, and Tejas Ravishankar as Peter Thangaraj -- play real-life roles convincingly.

It is also buoyed by a standout performance from Devgn who underplays the real-life Rahim and adds depth to his character. Because of Devgn/Rahim's almost self-effacing demeanour, 'Maidaan' becomes a touching tale of the spirit of endurance and refusal to surrender. One also gets to learn about an unsung sports hero whose single-handed unconventional approach to the game proves to be the winning formula against opponents.

The fact that after Rahim's endeavour in 1962, it's been 62 years since India so much as qualified for any international football tournaments, speaks volumes of the exceptional talent of this forgotten coach.

Film: Maidaan Duration: 182 minutes

Director: Amit Ravindernath Sharma Music: A.R. Rahman

Cast: Ajay Devgn, Gajaraj Rao, Priyamani and Rudranil Ghosh

Cinematography: Tushar Kanti Ray; Fyodor Lyass (sports)

IANS Rating: ***1/2

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