Hollywood’s newfound fetish with India-oriented films continues. With films such as The Namesake, Bride and Prejudice and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, emotional family dramas and ‘exotic’ cultural displays have dominated most of this genre, making it predictable in its treatment.
From the moment the first trailer hit the screens, one could easily make Million Dollar Arm to be a mix of Slumdog Millionaire and Jerry Macguire. Moreover, sports movies can be really clichéd because there are really only two options for the ending — success or failure (with wisdom acquired). However, despite the obvious predictability, Million Dollar Arm works.
The film is a biopic drama about an American sports agent, J B Bernstein (played by Mad Men’s Jon Hamm), who is supported by Aash (Aasif Mandvi), as they fail to sign on any clients and are on the brink of losing their office. Their solution is to go to India, find fresh baseball talent (basically find cricket players and develop them as major league pitchers) and sign them on to big moneymaking contracts. Bernstein sets up a reality competition across India called the ‘Million Dollar Arm’; the top two throwers then get to come to America to try out for a Major League Baseball team.
The focus of the movie is never on the extraordinary success of the two selected baseball players; it is about relationships. Bernstein is a single man who only means business, and does not realise that he has uprooted the lives of the two people he has brought halfway across the world. The Indian boys (played by Suraj Sharma and Madhur Mittal) are teenagers who have never been away from home and are lonely, scared and nervous in a foreign land where they don’t even know the local language. This is an emotional rollercoaster for everyone involved, and watching it unfold is both touching and beautiful.
Million Dollar Arm is a solid character study of Bernstein. As a down-and-out, deal-hungry, self-centred sports agent, he is easily agitated and comes across as cold and uptight. But as the film progresses, you realise that Bernstein is on a personal journey, evolving into an overall better person with empathy and emotions.
The film works due to its protagonists’ strong performances. Jon Hamm gives a superb, heartfelt performance and looks very charismatic on screen. Pitobash (from Bollywood films Shor in the City and Shanghai) is a scene-stealer and extremely loveable as the Indian wannabe baseball coach who is taken by Hamm rather reluctantly under his wing. The Million Dollar Arm contestants, Suraj Sharma (Pi Patel from Life of Pi) as Rinku and Madhur Mittal (previously seen in Slumdog Millionaire) as Dinesh, are the stars of the movie. From the very beginning, you become emotionally invested in them: you cheer for them when they perform well; you are devastated when they slip. Lake Bell, Aasif Mandvi, Alan Arkin, Bill Paxton and Tzi Ma deliver well as supporting cast. Director Craig Gillepsie beautifully captures the contrasts between the lifestyles, cultures and colours of America and India, underscored by AR Rehman’s music.
Million Dollar Arm is a feel-good movie for audiences of all ages.
Samra Muslim is a digital marketing professional, an avid reader and a movie buff. She tweets @samramuslim
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, July 6th, 2014.