Updated: December 24, 2021 8:17:52 am
In one interview director Kabir Khan, whose long-awaited 83 hits theaters on Friday, made a surprising confession. “I’m not a big cricket fan,” he told the website MensXP. That fact, he felt, made him the best person to helm 83 “because I will never get swayed by cricket.” That should mark Khan out in the minority, unlike millions of Indians who aren’t merely cricket fans but fanatics for whom the gentleman’s game happens to be a religion. Forget swaying, they will go to war for it. Furthermore, Khan went on to explain that he was primarily drawn to the “human story” in this Ranveer Singh-Deepika Padukone starrer more than a ‘tale of redemption,’ ‘sporting achievement against all odds’ or ‘underdog makes a comeback’ kind of triumph that makes a sports movie tick. But there’s no denying that its selling point is cricket itself. As any cricket-mad Indian will tell you, 1983 was a landmark year in Indian cultural history. Led by the legendary Kapil Dev, that’s the year the Indian cricket team pulled off what many claim was one of the greatest sporting events of all time. Clad in his official blue blazer, the image of Captain Dev famously lifting the World Cup at the Lord’s has since become a symbol of sporting glory and jubilant cricketing camaraderie.
Dev, who’s thrown his weight firmly behind the movie 83 along with the rest of his World Cup colleagues is no stranger to Bollywood, of course. As a sports icon, he has turned on his rustic Punjabi swag in more than a few Hindi films. You might remember Paaji, as Dev is called fondly, making a heroic entry towards Mujhse Shaadi Karogi’s (2004) climax. Sameer (Salman Khan, having not just anger issues but also, it seems, a bad hair day) breaks the security cordon and grabs the mic from Dev’s hands to declare his love for Rani (Priyanka Chopra) in front of a stadium full of spectators and a live TV audience. Dev’s legion of admirers, which includes Mohammed Kaif, Javagal Srinath, Harbhajan Singh and Irfan Pathan among others, wear nonplussed expressions as the drama around them unfolds. In the commentary box, Navjot Singh Sidhu is being, well, Navjot Singh Sidhu.
Dil Bechara, LBW
Mujhse Shaadi Karogi clearly revels in Dev’s star power but it is in more cricket-appropriate films like Iqbal (2005) and Chain Kulii Ki Main Kulii (2007) that Dev’s presence is properly justified. In the former, the deaf and mute Shreyas Talpade’s fast-bowling aspirant gets to meet his professional idol. In this timely cameo, Dev looks on with amused curiosity as Talpade’s coach Naseeruddin Shah informs him that the boy wonder has named his favourite buffalo after him! In Chain Kulii Ki Main Kulii, Dev serves as an inspiration for the orphanage lad Karan (Zain Khan) with dreams in his eyes and even agrees to autograph the young fan’s lucky bat.
This cosy romance between two of India’s most lucrative vocations is nothing new. Bollywood has always been in awe of cricket. And cricket has paid back the compliment by revealing a time-tested crush on cinema. The Dev Anand-Mala Sinha starrer Love Marriage (1959) was one of the earliest Hindi films to feature the hero as a flamboyant cricketer. In a match at Bombay’s iconic Brabourne Stadium, Anand even gets to sing an anthem that marries the art of romance with cricketing analogies in lines like ‘Ek nazar mein dil bechaara ho gaya LBW.’ Anand would return to the subject in Awwal Number (1990) decades later. Starring Aditya Pancholi as the broadly popular cricketer Ronny pitted opposite the up-and-coming Sunny (Aamir Khan), the film is set against the backdrop of terrorism. Cricket and dynamite: only Bollywood’s Mr Evergreen could have thought of such an hyper-imaginative plot. In Sunny’s inspired batting display — a perfect sixer on the last ball brings the movie to its thrilling finish — you can see the making of Bhuvan (Lagaan, 2001).
An entertaining yarn on cricket, Lagaan heralded the advent of the blockbuster era in Hindi cinema. Aside from the fact that it brought India’s twin obsessions under one song-and-dance platform, there’s another obvious reason for its success — it’s the ultimate underdog story. We are suckers for it. Lagaan’s drought-stricken villagers sending the British into a rout is a victory designed to cheer and root for. Let that sink in: the English lost a game they helped invent to not just a cricketing minnow but actually a rural stock that thought of the sport as mere ‘gilli danda’ until only a few months ago. Talk about how Bollywood loves a good underdog victory!
Lagaan is a rare and unusual Hindi film that looks at the intricacies of a cricket team, where every member of the cast gets his/her due. Mostly, though Hindi filmmakers appear happy to indulge their fantasies in biopics which, inevitably, turns into an ode to the underdog charms of its cricketer subject. Unfortunately, it’s still a man’s world out there. Why else would Rani Mukerji have to pretend to be a guy to play cricket in Dil Bole Hadippa! (2009)? Meanwhile, the tropes of sports movies in general and cricket ones in particular are familiar to viewers. The man from a small town/middle-class family who escapes his trying circumstances and corrupt bureaucracy to end up hoisting the trophy. There’s national culture at play here, but also a bit of nationalism. From MS Dhoni: The Untold Story to Sachin: A Billion Dreams, they all fit into a trite template of convincing us that the sport stars are the real heroes. To billions of Indians, there’s more than a sliver of truth in that statement. As many academics have pointed out that in a country overrun with tainted politicians, corporate scams and a bribe-friendly system, the task of supplying role models has been left to cricketers and subsequently, other sportsmen and women. And they have been proudly doing the heavy-lifting since.
A Good Marriage or A Great Tamasha?
History has shown that Bollywood and cricket are perfect for each other. It’s an artistic and commercial match made in heaven. If cricket is grit, Bollywood is all glamour. The latter has not been entirely immune from the moviedom allure. Start with marital alliances. Cricketers don’t need Sima Aunty. Bollywood is their Tinder. From Tiger Pataudi getting enamoured of Sharmila Tagore to Virat Kohli finding his Princess Charming in Anushka Sharma, the exchange of hearts and talents have been aplenty. Since the arrival of IPL, movie stars have even begun showing more interest in the corporate side of the game though we know that Shah Rukh Khan or Preity Zinta’s presence on the field is just good business sense. Now look at the other side. Cricketers wanting to extend their influence beyond the stadium have tried their luck in acting. Sunil Gavaskar, Salil Ankola, Ajay Jadega, Vinod Kambli… they have all jumped into the cinematic fray, hoping perhaps to add some more fame and power to their wattage. Navjot Singh Sidhu took to performing at the laughter shows like fish to water, proving his jokes were at par with his aggressive strokes on the field.
James Astill, in his book The Great Tamasha, argues that cricket hysteria gives Indians a “reassuring idea of national unity.” He could well be describing Bollywood. After all this is a nation where you can’t go a few miles without encountering a cinema hall and a cricket ground full of ‘Next Tendulkars and Dhonis’ within sniffing distance of each other. Both sell dreams, one on the field and another on billboards. They thrive under the floodlights and arc lights. Not LBWed by their magic yet? Wait for it — howzzat!
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