Review: 83

If you’ve a deep interest in Indian cricket, then you know how the first West Indian wicket fell in the 1983 World Cup final. A turbaned fast bowler, Balwinder Singh Sandhu, pitches a good-length ball outside the off stump; the lethal opener, Gordon Greenidge, shoulders his bat. But like a great plot twist, the delivery upturns our anticipation: It cuts in and shakes the stumps. An opening so perfect it laid the foundation for an improbable win — a ball so cunning it could have stolen the Devil’s soul. Such a twist defines the story of the Indian team’s World Cup campaign and, indeed, the final — when you expected it to go one way, it went the other.

Winning the first two matches in the group stage, India lost to Australia and West Indies and sunk to 17/5 against Zimbabwe. Then Kapil Dev happened. But in the final, chasing 184, a Vivian Richards blitzkrieg made his team need just 127 more runs with eight wickets in hand. Even there, Kapil Dev happened, and just when you thought that the match would go left — taking cues from Sandhu’s fast ‘off-spinner’ — it went right. 

Such a trajectory — replete with macro and micro twists — that too of an underdog is the stuff of the movies. I wasn’t even born in 1983, but I remember the Sandhu delivery like last night’s dream. Because that’s the poetry and cruelty of cricket: When the Indian team wins, the whole country wins, when it loses, it loses alone. That spirit alone makes Kabir Khan’s 83 almost invincible. What’s not there to love: nostalgia, cricket, underdog, plot turns, the coloniser’s land, an impossible win, national pride. What’s more: the film knows the right beats, and it hits them hard — very hard.

At the start of the film, for example, Sandhu (Ammy Virk) is bowling to Sunil Gavaskar (Tahir Raj Bhasin) in the nets. “Why do you want to send a telegram to the batsman that you’re bowling an inswinger?” He tells the fast bowler. That scene ends there; you nod and make a mental note, ‘smart foreshadowing’. But in fact, it doesn’t end there. Later in the movie, Sandhu beats Gavaskar in the nets and, before the Greenidge dismissal, the legendary opener tells him, “Andar waali daal, chhupa ke [bowl the inswinger — hide it well].” These three scenes summarise both the intent and method of this 152-minute sports drama. Intent: hinge a scene, a sequence, or a subplot, around a real-life event and milk it dry. Method: hammer and repeat, hammer and repeat. Imagine a cricket team with 11 batsmen, and all of them are Virender Sehwag: that’s 83 for you.  

Take the ‘underdog’ subplot for instance. The movie opens in the “Cricket Board of India” office on March 1, 1983. The board officials mock, more than once, India’s slim chance at the World Cup in front of the team manager PR Man Singh (Pankaj Tripathi). Then an airline staff makes fun of him at the airport; then he doesn’t get the passes for the World Cup final in London (someone laughs in the office again); then a spectator taunts Kapil Dev (Ranveer Singh) after a warm-up match; then a British journalist grills the Indian captain about his team’s chance in the tournament; then a commentator repeats during the first match that India doesn’t stand a chance; then when the team starts doing well, a journalist call it a “lucky win”, another writes “expecting an ENG-WI final” — Kapil Dev reads such reports, not once but twice, and crushes the paper in disgust (not once but twice); then — so sorry! — forgot to mention that there’s also a kid who waves a tricolour in front of the team bus and elsewhere (contradicting his father who believes that this team is worthless), which is also accompanied by a (not so) rousing song; and then — I’m sure you get the hint (and also, it’s impossible to keep track).

The rest of the subplots, too, repeat the same cycle. Someone should have told the makers, in essence, what Gavaskar told Sandhu: “Why do you want to send a telegram to the audiences that you’re about to hit a familiar beat?” Sometimes 83 outdoes itself. In an early scene, two Indian players — of course aware of their opponents — are discussing the four West Indian pacers. The whole thing sounds like a basic Wikipedia entry. “That’s Marshal. That’s Michael Holding, ‘Whispering Death’. That’s the ‘Big Bird’, Joel Garner.” It’s impossible that this scene would have happened in real-life. Its sole intent then seems patronising: to ‘teach’ the audience. Khan’s movie takes no half measures, operating in just two modes: It first underscores the greatness of the Indian team — accompanied by all means of possible deification — and then explains it, again and again and again, for us, the poor audiences. For all its unending assertions of national pride, Khan’s team displays nothing but (benign) condescension towards the Indian audience.

Since 83 is framed around a famous tournament, replicating the matches with some authenticity would have elevated, maybe even saved, the film. But no such luck, as the unfocussed cinematography and choppy editing distract the audience and dilute the film. Here too, you can spot a formula. We first see a bowler’s run-up, then cut to a medium shot of a batsman hitting the ball. This constant spatial disconnect between the bat and ball neither captures the ingenuity of the bowlers nor the craftsmanship of the batters. It dims, for instance, the sheen of the great West Indian pace attack. Many matches are shot from a perpendicular angle, with respect to the pitch, making you feel as if you’re standing on short mid-wicket — an alienating filming style that often snaps our emotional chord with the match.
Sometimes intense matches are accompanied by insipid songs and lyrics. An India-Australia game is set to a song, which sounds in part, “Jeetega, jeetega, India jeetega.” Such scenes have no sense of tone or rhythm — or even the pretence of attempt. In fact, if you watch the film closely, you’ll start to wonder whether the makers even get cricket. In an India-West Indies match, we get multiple shots of Richards destroying the Indian bowling; the commentators, as usual, reinforce the visuals (the batsman, we hear, is “making it look too easy”). And then we see the score: 67/1 in 22 overs (in a match where West Indies made 282 in 60).

But nothing — absolutely nothing — prepares you for some wild subplots, crosscuts, and cameos. Here’s a small sample. There’s one about the Indian soldiers listening to the radio commentary amid relentless shelling (which gets better — a Pakistani army official says they’ll stop bombing during the World Cup final. No wonder we lost the Sino-Indian war; the damn thing happened 21 years too early). There’s one about a small town, Nawabpur, wrecked by communal violence where cricket functions as a healing mediator. There’s one about a pregnant woman taken to a hospital (she gives birth and names the baby, I’m sure you guessed it, “Kapil Dev”). Why stop there, I thought. A blistering Trevor Chappell century should have cut to an applauding Greg Chappell to a 10-year-old Bengali kid going nuts somewhere in Calcutta. Which reminds me, there’s of course a young Sachin in the film, watching the final with his friends and relatives.

And then the cameos. When Singh hits a six during the epic 175, the ball sails into the stadium, and it’s caught by… the real Kapil Dev. Which is still okay, but the guest appearance by Mohinder Amarnath — playing “Lala” Amarnath, the father of Saqib Salem’s character (Mohinder Amarnath) — is meta campy filmmakingon drugs. Amarnath pops up throughout the film, and each subsequent appearance makes 83 even more (unintentionally) nutty. He starts off as a stern father, who has high expectations of his son, often calling him in London. But even there, he struggles to manage even the most basic dialogues. Khan, however, raises the stakes. In a later scene, Amarnath watches Salem on TV — or, as we know, watches himself. When Salem gets run out, he throws a shoe at it. He appears again, during the World Cup final, in front of the TV, watching himself, smoking a pipe. Forget being moved — or ‘inspired’ or intrigued or engaged — in the latter half, when the film had crossed all limits of silliness, I began laughing.

Which doesn’t mean that the movie’s devoid of merits. In fact, 83 shines when it’s not straining to be poignant. Its scenes of banter among the Indian players hit the sweet spot: They’re unimposing, relaxed, funny. Like most Bollywood sports dramas, this movie doesn’t demonise the opponents. The acting is impressive across characters, and Bhasin, Virk, and Jiiva (a superb turn as Krishnamachari Srikkanth) stand out. It’s never easy to make a film with more than a dozen characters, but the writing takes care to dignify each one of them, even Sunil Valson, who gets a small scene capturing his disappointment on being dropped from the side.

83 also nails an important essence of cricket: that it is hardly about one individual. It’d have been easy (and disingenuous) to make this movie revolve around a few players, such as Kapil Dev and Mohinder Amarnath, but the makers stay true to the spirit of the game. And whenever it returns to Kapil Dev, it produces some fine moments, thanks to Singh’s restrained performance. His Kapil makes for an unlikely ‘hero’, an unlikely leader. Unlike the movie, he gets awkward about making inspirational speeches. He seethes when his teammates, more than once, are just content to be ‘competitive losers’. He soaks it all in and spits it out on the field. A true definition-defying role, Singh’s Kapil excels in non-verbal stuff, bringing out paradoxical yet credible facets of the captain: the bashful smile, the simmering silence, the quiet resolve, the stifled frustration. Singh often looks like he’s on the verge of pulling a prank — carrying a sense of playful unpredictability — but again, unlike the movie, he gives us no easy adjectives.       

These sporadic highs, however, cannot save a ridiculous and ludicrous mess like 83. A good (real) life story needn’t translate into a good film — a point so obvious yet one that demands repetition, because this drama is sunk by gargantuan and embarrassing mistakes. But maybe none of that matters. Maybe all we need is an overeager highlights of warm nostalgia, vicarious pride, flowing reverence, inspirational story, and repetitive melodrama — all beyond scrutiny, for it is, after all, based on a ‘true story’. Because when you’re trapped in a tournament of unending mediocrity — and low expectations — it isn’t difficult to win a World Cup every Friday.   

A slightly shortened version of this review was first published at The Wire.

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