When a public relations professional called me with the pitch to review a “biopic” of Indian cricket captain Virat Kohli, produced by National Geographic, my interest was piqued.
Indian cinema is replete with sports biopics that were produced with the blessings of its subject, thereby completely whitewashing the sportsperson when it comes to controversial moments in their career.
While Mohammad Azharuddin was all but declared not guilty of match-fixing in his biopic, the one on MS Dhoni ended two years before the the spot-fixing scandal that got his Indian Premier League team suspended for two years. The lesser said about Sachin Tendulkar’s biopic, the better.
The hope was that National Geographic would not do the same when it came to arguably the biggest superstar in Indian sport at the moment – someone who oozes talent and controversy in equal amounts.
The film, however, is not a biopic, per se, but rather a scientific biopic. In 45-odd minutes, it tries to answer the question as to whether Virat Kohli was born to be a “mega icon”, or was he sculpted into one?
Science and tattoos
In the first episode of its new series called “Mega Icons”, National Geographic speaks to various scientists and experts from the fields of neurosurgery, development biology, brain behaviour research and cognitive science to explain the neurological and psychological concepts at work behind specific instances in Kohli’s life that shaped his career.
Sounds a bit too geeky? Well, it sort of is. Not that you can blame National Geographic, which is a niche channel, for this. The content, you would imagine, fits well with their target audience, which enjoys science-based shows. National Geographic tries hard to make all the science appear cool by including graphics of the brain and its neurons, but it might take a second watch for the average Indian sports fan to understand what they’re getting at.
That’s not to say the episode is all science and geeky.
One of the most novel and interesting things about the episode is that this is perhaps the first time Kohli has, officially at least, spoken about his tattoos. The episode builds it up well, defining tattoos as “perhaps one of the world’s oldest Instagram posts”.
Kohli, with his 23 million Instagram followers, has nine tattoos, each of which is either inspired by turning points in his life, or things he seeks inspiration from. These include god’s eye, a Samurai warrior, his parents’ names, his Test and ODI cap numbers, and the Hindu god Shiva. “I don’t need to look any further than my both my arms to understand where I was and where I’ve come now,” he says.
Cricket fans will also enjoy the part where Kohli speaks about his batting – about how instinct takes over everything when he is on the field. “Sometimes I go into a state where I don’t even look at the bowler,” he says. “It’s literally just a ball coming out of, you know you can almost call it a blurred vision. I follow my instinct to a level that I feel like there is no negative streak in my body at all, at that moment.”
As for the premise of the episode, as to whether Kohli was born a genius or made one, the cricketer seems to contradict the experts who analyse him. The 29-year-old believes he is born, or “meant to be”, who he is. “It is not something that can be created,” he says. The experts, meanwhile, suggest that geniuses such as Kohli are only partly born but become who they are as a result of external factors.
The episode is watchable but like all Indian sports “biopics”, it would probably leave viewers wanting more. For such a colourful, animated and passionate individual as he is, it leaves you thinking there are so many parts of his brain and psyche that all the scientists have barely touched upon. Apart from fleeting mentions of Kohli’s flamboyant lifestyle that almost derailed his career pre-2012, the episode chooses not to dip its feet in any of the controversies the cricketer has found himself in.
In terms of whitewashing, National Geographic does not disappoint. The episode has Virat Kohli’s stamp of approval all over it. If you wanted to be particularly harsh, you could even call it a 45-minute advertisement for Puma and Wrogn, the apparel brands that he endorses, with some science, tattoos, butterflies and cricket thrown into it.
The wait for a real Indian sports “biopic” continues.
The first episode of National Geographic’s Mega Icons series featuring Virat Kohli will air on September 24 at 9 pm IST.