Within minutes of touching down in India on an outlandish talent-spotting mission, US baseball agent J.B. Bernstein, looking for clinical efficiency in operations, runs headlong into a Third World cliché. An unctuous, head-bobbing, foot-dragging flunkey tells him with frustrating finality: “In India, we do things a little differently.” You brace yourself for a cringe-worthy caricature that exoticises the agonising ‘We are like that only’ Indian idiosyncracies that confront every fresh-off-the-boat firangi.
But at the end of two-plus hours of endearing East-meets-West encounters, director Craig Gillespie leaves you with a narrative that, for all its formulaic and pre-destined plotline, is suffused with a feel-good freshness of tone. For sure, the film is punctuated with many of the usual markers of only-in-India experiences, but Gillespie’s treatment of them is characterised more by chuckle-inducing empathy than the optics of outside-in otherisation.
The drama of Million Dollar Arm happens at the crossroads of Jerry Maguire and Slumdog Millionaire. It embellishes the real-life story of an out-of-luck Bernstein (played masterfully by Jon Hamm) who, driven to despair by his floundering agency, gambles on a game-changing idea: to travel to cricket-crazy India, conduct a reality talent show to find two baseball pitchers to take back home — and sell the game (and sporting merchandise) to “a billion Indians”.
That enterprise takes him and his oddball team of fellow-talent scouts and facilitators (stand-out performances by Alan Arkin as the lethargic Ray and by Pitobash as the frisky Amit) to small-town India. It also draws Bernstein into delightfully droll encounters along the way, whose flavours are enriched by the taut screenplay of Thomas McCarthy, the lyrical cinematography of Gyula Pados, and — above all else — A.R. Rahman’s mood-elevating background score.
The ‘Million Dollar Arm’ talent search yields two uncut diamonds — Rinku Singh (Suraj Sharma of Life of Pi) and Dinesh Patel (Madhur Mittal of Slumdog Millionaire fame) — whose lives are magically transformed, and simultaneously thrown out of gear. Transported to Los Angeles, the two dehatis struggle gawkily to make the cultural crossing and to break into the Major League Baseball circuit. And, as happened in the real world, they come good at crunch time.
Rinku and Dinesh’s sense of displacement is so haunting and their eventual unlikely rise to stardom so dramatic that the film could just as easily have pivoted around their life journey. But Gillespie opts for Bernstein as his cinematic focus, which device works rather well because it gives him elbow room to flesh out another strand: of Bernstein’s personal redemption and metamorphosis from a skirt-chasing bohemian to finding love in the ‘girl next door’.
In the end, it isn’t just the ‘happily ever after’ denouement (it is a Disney film after all) that makes Million Dollar Arm a well-rounded film. It is directorial deftness, combined with stellar performances and Rahman’s haunting melody, which brings about that end result. With picture-perfect performances, the all-star team hits this one clean out of the ballpark.
Genre: Feel-good sports drama
Director: Craig Gillespie
Cast: Jon Hamm, Aasif Mandvi, Suraj Sharma, Madhur Mittal, Lake Bell, Pitobash
Storyline: A down-and-out U.S. baseball agent comes talent-scouting to India, airlifts two unlikely young men to League stardom — and finds personal redemption.
Bottomline: An endearing narrative, even given the predictable plotline.