Sports films narrating the story of an underdog are an easy route for production companies to attract as wide an audience as possible. Football fans would likely mention Leicester City’s 2016 Premier League win or Greece lifting the Euro 2004 trophy as the most compelling of narratives in recent decades, while the Americans have already put out a wealth of both fictional and biographical boxing, baseball and gridiron-themed cinema for decades.
For most Indians, the biggest inspiration would be the Kapil Dev-led Men’s ODI team that beat far more fancied sides like England, Australia and the West Indies to win the 1983 Cricket World Cup.
Hindi cinema has made multiple attempts in the last two decades to capture sports, sportspersons and the spirit of their game—from Chak De, to Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, to Iqbal, to Dangal, M.S. Dhoni-The Untold Story, Soorma, Gold and Mary Kom among others — with varying success at the box office. But for a country that carries the twin obsession of cricket and Bollywood, Kabir Khan’s 83 just falls short of capturing the pure spirit of the journey and the subsequent victory. The Ranveer Singh starrer should have been a winning cocktail as it had everything a Bollywood script needs — a star in the lead, a character who is India’s national hero and an event that is etched in the public memory and told and re-told to us through numerous commentaries. Perhaps it is the forceful insertions of themes of nationalism, one of those pre-requisites that filmmakers believe may guarantee commercial success, that spoil the taste of 83.
It took nearly 40 years for anyone in Bollywood to mine this tournament for a big-budgeted mainstream film. But after Friday’s release of 83, the question is: did director Kabir Khan do justice to the real-life victory?
Yes and no.
Yes because 83 not only nails down the casting of the Indian cricket team (as well as its opponents) but also does a decent job of cinematographically capturing England in the 1980s.
No, because the script penned by Kabir Khan, Sanjay Puran Singh Chauhan and Vasan Bala, consistently falls short. Rather, the writing trio appear more interested in unnecessary injections of nationalism, and give Ranveer and company little to work with, despite the film’s 161-minute runtime.
Stoic Ranveer aided by supporting cast’s comic relief
While the trailer gave the impression that 83 would primarily be a biopic on captain Kapil Dev, the film belongs just as much to the rest of the characters. This broadened focus works to the film’s benefit.
Bollywood’s colourist casting problem shows itself again in the form of Ranveer Singh’s brownface to match Kapil’s likeness. But, just like his brownface in Gully Boy, it does not significantly detract from his performance, which is something that cannot be said for Hrithik Roshan in Super 30 or Bhumi Pednekar in Bala.
As a result, it takes a bit away from Ranveer’s stoic performance who masterfully captures Dev’s inflections, mannerisms, confidence and laser-focused will to win in the face of constant banter and disbelief from all around him.
But the writers often waste Ranveer’s talents, relegating his character as largely one-dimensional and saddling him with the film’s least interesting arc and dialogues that even Ted Lasso would have found too cheesy.
Portrayal of Kapil’s personal life involving mother (Neena Gupta) and wife (Deepika Padukone) are similarly cliched, and if not included, would not have made a difference to the film’s quality overall.
Instead, it is the supporting cast who break the dullness, adding some colour through comic relief and crackling chemistry. Team manager P.R. Man Singh (Pankaj Tripathi), openers Sunil Gavaskar (Tahir Raj Bhasin) and Krishnamachari Srikkanth (Jiiva), allrounder Mohinder Amarnath (Saqib Saleem), wicketkeeper Syed Kirmani (Sahil Khattar) and bowlers Balwinder Sandhu (Ammy Virk) and Madan Lal (Harrdy Sandhu) all have their moments.
However, the breakout star is versatile character actor Jatin Sarna, for his portrayal of the late Yashpal Sharma, a swashbuckling middle-order batsman.
Not only does Sarna make the most of Yashpal’s in-game contributions against the West Indies and England, but also seamlessly transitions between Punjabi, Hindi and English, finding enough humour regardless of the language.
A particularly amusing instance in the movie shows is his teammates’ confusion as to whether Yashpal was suffering from an STD or acidity during the semifinal. Ranveer gets a memorable moment here too, as he saves the day by providing Yashpal with a Vitamin C tablet, but pretending it was a game-changing painkiller.
Yashpal has been largely ignored in popular cricketing memory compared to his World Cup-winning teammates, but Sarna pays the perfect fictional tribute, on and off the field, in 83.
Too much nationalism
Most of 83’s flaws can be blamed on recurring nationalist themes that also dominate many mainstream Hindi films today.
In 83, every single moment of the cricket team’s success is unnecessarily juxtaposed with cut-scenes showing soldiers posted on the mountainous India-Pakistan border and principal characters repeatedly likening the tournament to fighting a war.
But there are two shoehorned sequences that are particularly ham-fisted and ill-advised. One is an extended 5-minute montage showcasing a young Indian fan holding up a handmade tricolour and surrounded by West Indian fans celebrating and dancing. Straight out of a low-budget soap opera, it is accompanied with a bombastic patriotic score that reverberates far too often throughout the film.
The other is a depiction of Nawabpur, a small town that faced so much communal violence that the Army and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had to step in. But the PM found an “obvious” solution to the problem — she promotes India’s World Cup run in the town, and sure enough, the town’s Muslim residents set up their television antenna and quickly begin to embrace the soldiers stationed in the town over a shared love of cricket.
Instead of relevant powerful examples of fan support uniting a country, such sequences repeatedly interrupt the main performances and only add to the over-dramatisation of an event that was inspiring enough on its own to never need such an exaggeration.
It feels like Kabir Khan took a boilerplate sports script and injected uber-patriotic music and imagery. A recurring ‘offence’, especially in the second half. From Deepika Padukone leaving Lord’s and tearing up her match ticket, to the super-super slow motion that fills up the screen when Madan Lal dismisses Viv Richards, every major moment is so pre-telegraphed. It undoes plenty of the cast’s tremendous work and saps the film of a far more insightful product. But, perhaps, the direction and presentation style straddles the line between crowd-pleasing and awards bait. All of these scenes were met with applause not just in the reel stadiums, but also in the real-life cinema hall I attended.
On a scale of the farcical Victory to the powerful Iqbal, 83 ultimately ranks straight down the middle in India’s cricket film library. It is the cinematic equivalent of military medium pace bowling — simple and often effective, but a far cry from the mind-blowing presentation that Kapil Dev and his team deserved.
Those interested in a less melodramatic, less nationalistic narrative about India’s win should instead watch one of the many documentaries made over the years.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)