Following Mohammad Azharuddin was always hazardous. Growing up in the ’80s, most Indian teens would have bruised their limbs attempting his sharp fielding. Not everyone could stop a cricket ball, dart it back to the stumps without slowing down while being crouched like a prowling panther. Many would sprain their wrists copying Azharuddin’s batsmanship. To work a ball that was pitched on the 7th stump to square leg wasn’t an indulgence for the untalented. After realising that there wasn’t some sporting legend bottled up inside them, kids became greater fans of the man with the magical wrists. Unfortunately, it wasn’t fated to end well. A betrayal would snap the bond layered with awe and admiration.
Azharuddin has been the ultimate spoilsport for a generation. Despite the 2012 favourable court verdict — it set aside the match-fixing related life ban on him — it’s tough to forget and impossible to forgive. A long list of dubious phone calls to known fixers, the account of team mates in a shocking sting operation and Hansie Cronje’s chilling confession — “Azharuddin called me to his room and introduced me to MK”— meant Azharuddin’s flannels remain sullied.
And his just-released fictional biopic — a genre with the potential to become popular in these times of heroes with imperfect pasts for audiences with short memory spans — is another attempt to win back followers and to find closure. With Azharuddin aggressively promoting the movie, the disclaimer about the movie not being true to real life events seemed like an addition that the lawyers forced.
It’s a movie with a lame storyline, lots of holes and Bollywood’s busiest lips in the lead. Nothing’s convincing, not a single frame makes you change your opinion about the enigmatic cricketer. More so when you write on cricketers for a living. However, it reminded you of what Lord Paul Condon, the ICC’s anti-corruption unit chief, said about the game in the late ’90s: “It was a crisis of credibility. Sponsors were pulling out because it was clear there had been a whole series of fixed matches in every form of the game…” The movie deepens those old wounds, aggravates contempt for “those” dubious cheats who sold their souls to shady syndicates. Back then, they pulled a fast one by reducing cricket to a pre-decided farce. Now one of them seems to be at it again. History can’t be replaced by
a favourable Bollywood script. Or, maybe it can?
The first day-first show at a Noida movie hall ended with a light applause. Those walking the dark aisles spoke in sympathetic tones about the man wronged. You feared that soon the man who was seen at IPL games to promote his “fictional biopic” would return as an expert. You dread the day when he would be offered the job to be India’s batting coach. To be fair, everyone should get a second chance in life but redemption comes after genuine expression of regret, not by a PR overdrive or air-brushing of the past.
Azharuddin, and others with match-fixing stains on them, turned an army of hero-worshippers into cynics. Some returned but were scarred for life; they turned sceptics.
Hidden in the many fictitious frames, the movie almost casually captures Indian cricket’s monumental moment. It’s the then BCCI president Raj Singh Dungarpur offering Azharuddin the Indian captaincy. “Miyan kaptaan banoge?” he says. It was a surprise move since the very raw Azharuddin, with very little communication skills and a distinct Hyderabadi accent, was preferred over the seniors in the side.
The late Dungarpur, Indian cricket’s biggest romantic and a man with no real biases, had taken a leap of faith. He wanted a young and talented cricketer to lead the “Team of the ’90s”. For once, Indian cricket had risen over regional prejudices. A small-town boy had reached the pinnacle, purely on his skills. Mohammad Azharuddin was the likeable “Azhar” for every Indian. In that dubious decade of the ’90s, India’s Azhar got lost somewhere. The one seen in theaters near you, isn’t that Azhar. It’s Emran Hashmi playing a cricketer who keeps his collar up and shakes his head.