Dilip Jha is the man behind many successful television shows. Jha has now moved to writing for films and debuts as a film writer with M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story. In conversation with Soumita Sengupta, Jha shares his journey
How did you come on board to write the biopic?
It all began with Kamal Jain approaching me for the film. Through him, I met Arun Pandey. At that point, they were considering some other writers for this biopic and I still don’t know why they chose me. Things worked out, and Kamal and Arun asked me to meet MS. I was very excited as it would be my debut film.
In 2013, I went to Ranchi to meet MS. It was a lovely day because all the cricketers were there at his place since there was a match in progress in Ranchi. That was the first time I met him very briefly. After that, I travelled to Ranchi and Delhi several times to meet him and learn more about him.
Was there an awestruck moment?
I follow every sport, not just cricket, and yes the first meeting had this sense of ‘I am meeting MS!’ But I soon realised that he was a simple man. He made me feel so comfortable that it was like chatting with a regular guy. And that’s what the producers wanted to reflect in the film. There is no one single age group that loves MS – from kids to elderly people, everyone adores him, praises him and loves him. So this biopic was meant to reflect the man just as he is… no melodrama, just Mahi the way he is. Also, the story needed to be inspirational, as his life has been, showing how he fought the odds and how a boy from a small town became the Indian cricket captain.
In fact, my only initial awkwardness was about how to address him. I didn’t want to call him ‘Dhoni’ because that’s his surname, not his name. So I asked him if I could call him ‘Mahi’, and he smiled. By the way, it’s ‘Mahi’, short for Mahindra, not ‘Maahi’.
Our subsequent meetings were easy and he made me feel comfortable. I would record conversations when he was sharing details. Sometimes he would share things he didn’t want in the film, and he would ask me to switch off the recorder.
Was it easy to get everything out of him?
Easy in the sense that he shared his life story. I also met his parents, friends, sister, teachers, and Banerjee sir, who were very helpful. I travelled to Jamshedpur and Kharagpur to meet his former colleagues. But it was difficult getting hold of him. When he plays for the country, he doesn’t talk to anyone, doesn’t carry his phone with him. So when series and matches were on, he wouldn’t be available. I was able to catch up with him only when he was not playing. I also met him at a shoot once, got a sense of how he deals with different kinds of people, how he behaves in front of the camera. I met some people separately to get their stories about Mahi. The research took around five months.
When did Neeraj Pandey come on board?
Neeraj sir came on board when I was writing my second draft. The producers were in talks with a few directors. In many cases, the dates didn’t match but Neeraj sir had time. I went to meet him when he was shooting for Baby.
Once he came on board, what more did he bring to the table?
I am a huge fan of his work and he is an ocean of talent. I shared the first draft with him and we started working together. I had briefed him about the characters, but after he came on board, we met all the people once again. And then we started writing the second draft.
What was it like working with Neeraj Pandey?
He brings his own charm and knowledge to the table. He has an altogether different style. We discussed a lot of things, like linear karna hain ya non-linear? Where to start? Where to end? One thing he certainly brought to the table was his unique style of storytelling. We always wanted to tell a story that would be true to the way Mahi is and he structured it beautifully.
Was it tough to get a beginning and an end?
Yes! The opening scene you see is one of about 50 ideas we had for the opening scene – and it was the first one, but we discussed them all before we finally went back to that first idea. Similarly, we had thought of about 50 possible endings too, and there was a whole lot of discussion over where to show his personal story and where to show his professional life. I am very proud to say that everything we show in the film has happened to Mahi; we didn’t underplay any scene.
So while Mahi was narrating his story to you, what was the most emotional point?
The most emotional part was Priyanka Jha’s part. Mahi doesn’t come across as an emotional man and it was therefore a surprise. You have no idea what’s going on his mind and he is very calm. When he told me about this part, it was tough to figure out whether we should use it as it was or leave it out… It was one of the toughest parts to incorporate.
The film is more than three hours long. Was the length of the film a conscious decision?
This question should go to the director, yes, we deliberately kept it long. The script we wrote was about four hours long, and the story called for that. The length is justified given that we remained true to the story and the facts. Even the love story wasn’t glamourised. Sakshi was interning at the hotel where they first met.
It was important to show his back story — where Mahi comes from, the circumstances under which he grew up, etc. That’s why we dedicated the first half to before he truly became Dhoni… including his years as a struggling cricketer just like a thousand other cricketers.
What is the one thing you loved most about working on this film?
The thing I enjoyed most was the feeling of living the greatness of that person. Given a chance, I’d love to do something like this again.