To an industry obsessed with telling stories about the fictitious, the rich and the colourful, Dhoni, Prakash Raj's painstakingly composed (and executed) ode to the middle class, comes as a breath of fresh air. That several families will identify with the essence of this film is a given. The good news is that Dhoni has Prakash Raj written all over it - the man coats his film with the intensity and integrity we're used to seeing in his performances.
That's bad news in its own way, though, as anyone who thinks Prakash Raj's energy tends to spill over into hamming territory will agree. No, the man doesn't ham here, but, as a filmmaker, lets the movie morph into something that you have not come to the theatres to watch.
The story starts off being a textbook case of the melodrama that unfolds in a middle class household whose school-going son (oh, the horror!) displays more interest in sports than in "studies". Subbu (Prakash Raj) is a widower, a government employee who sells pickles to make ends meet, and a loving father of 2. His son (Puri Jagannadh Jr., Akash) is a cricket champ who cannot clear a single exam, and this is cause for much tension at home.
Prakash Raj - the actor and the director - has the father-son equation down pat. This is no two-dimensional relationship: the struggling dad, who initially tries cajoling his son to dust his books and at least pass his exams, is driven to helplessness when his loving attempts bear no fruit, and finally, to sheer frustration when the school principal threatens action on the kid. Yes, Dhoni is a highly fulfilling sketch of all the emotional sub-texts that go into this bond, and portraying it is an actor who's done this several times before, so this part of the film is secure.
What is also endearing about the film is its attention to detail, shown especially in the way life in the home of a common man has been fascinatingly sketched.
But then, this is no cheerful movie. What starts off as a charming set of vignettes about the life of us ordinary mortals, suddenly goes off into a heart-breaking world, and then builds to a crescendo that is so piercing you stop identifying with it. Subbu is subjected to a lot of things that do not happen to middle class people in real life, and parts of his troubles seem contrived.
There's much high-pitched outrage about the education system, but some of it, we're afraid, is slightly off-topic. What the writers fail to notice is that the child is not being pressurized to score 99%, as is being widely ranted about - the challenge here is that no one's able to motivate the child to even pass his exams, while grooming his cricketing talent.
It would have been nice to see closure to that subtle and strange eyes-only relationship that Subbu shares with his single neighbour (Radhika Apte) - but the "are they interested in each other, or are they not?" question is quite a treat in itself.
Akash Puri, besides the striking resemblance to his father, is a decent find, and is good with the combination of innocence and rebellion that his character must render. The girl who plays his sister doesn't have much to do. Radhika Apte has a strong screen presence despite her silences.
Dhoni also features a lovely ensemble of fine actors - Nasseer, Gollapudi Maruti Rao, Tanikella Bharani (woefully underutilized), Sri Lakshmi and Brahmanandam (who, after centuries, acts serious).
Ilayaraja's tunes remind you of those homely '80s films, which Dhoni actually aims to be. The low budget of the movie sets a limit on the visual quality, though.
Watch it for Prakash Raj, but don't count on it giving you a good time.