Walt Disney Pictures’ Million Dollar Arm has its theatrical release on May 16. Contributor Veena Hampapur attended an early screening last week and also interviewed the film’s costars Madhur Mittal and Suraj Sharma about their preparation for the film and what they hope the audience will take from it.
Like any other child of the nineties, I was raised on Disney’s underdog sports films like The Mighty Ducks, The Big Green, and Cool Runnings (“Feel the rhythm! Feel the rhyme!”). Million Dollar Arm fits neatly into this genre with one notable difference: the baseball players are from India. Growing up I would have loved to see a heartwarming story with funny (and cute!) South Asian actors — instead, we got, well you remember…
Based on actual events from the late 2000s, the film centers on entrepreneurial sports agent JB Bernstein (Jon Hamm). With his career in a rut, JB devises a plan to scout two Indian cricket players and transform them into Major League Baseball pitchers. In India, JB discovers Dinesh Patel (Madhur Mittal, Slumdog Millionaire) and Rinku Singh (Suraj Sharma, Life of Pi), two eighteen-year-olds who can throw a fastball. They fly to Los Angeles to train with USC pitching coach Tom House (Bill Paxton). Ultimately, Million Dollar Arm is less about baseball and more about the importance of meaningful relationships.
I’ll admit, Hollywood productions about the subcontinent do make me nervous, and in particular, as a Mad Men enthusiast, I didn’t want Jon Hamm to mess up! Although there are a few trite jokes about Indian food and call centers, I was overall comfortable with the film’s depictions, and pleasantly surprised when its characters challenged certain generalizations we often hear.
My major criticism is that I wanted to see less JB and more Rinku and Dinesh in the second half. JB’s money-oriented playboy My major criticism is that I wanted to see less JB and more Rinku and Dinesh in the second half.persona is clear, and it is obvious how his character will develop, especially given the arc of inspirational Disney films. Meanwhile, I found myself wanting to know more about the Indian teens — beyond their gratefulness and desire to please JB. How did their respective friendship grow? How did they feel leaving their villages and families to pursue an entirely different life abroad? (And, while I’m at it, it would also be nice to see their names and faces on the movie poster along with Jon Hamm and the Taj Mahal.)
Watch my interview with the charming Madhur Mittal (left) and Suraj Sharma (right) to learn about their preparation for the film and what they hope the audience will take from it:
All in all, I enjoyed Million Dollar Arm and recommend it. Though the story is familiar, it is a movie that will entertain the whole family. The music, composed by A.R. Rahman, is dynamic and paired well with the beautiful cinematography capturing Lucknow, Mumbai, and Agra. I liked watching Dinesh and Rinku interact with their families and seeing where they are from. I found myself laughing with the audience throughout the film.
The supporting characters are charismatic — from the friendly neighbor Brenda (Lake Bell) to the earnest translator Amit (Pitobash). JB’s business partner Ash is played by Aasif Mandvi who, as usual, is hilarious. I valued that while his Indian-American identity is not ignored, it does not entirely define him nor make him a cultural translator.
Another notable aspect is Director Craig Gillespie’s genuine concern with authenticity. The actors speak in Hindi when appropriate, and the majority of them met the people they portray. The real JB Bernstein visited the set, and the real Dinesh Patel even worked with Mittal and Sharma as their pitching coach. The filmmakers also drew ideas extensively from archived video footage, much of which was captured by the pitching duo’s translator Amit — a process itself depicted in the movie. The film even presents some of this footage, allowing the audience to see the actual Rinku and Dinesh living the moments that were later recreated in Million Dollar Arm.
Veena Hampapur is a documentary filmmaker (most recently, Basketball, Meri Jaan) and PhD candidate in Anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles.