NOT JUST ANOTHER AZHAR FLICK

If here’s one thing all Azhar fans want from his biopic, it’s nuance

Growing up in a decade when Indian cricket flattered to deceive at just about every level of the game and at all settings, it was difficult not to think of cricket as an incredibly difficult game; the alternative would have been to assume it to be easy with India plain bad at playing it, and that was not good to sit and chew on.

Sachin stood tall as a hero leading a charge against the finest, battling the odds stacked against an inconsistent bowling unit. And while this all went on, one batsman – terse, casual and relaxed in manner – kept playing innings with unfathomable elegance and ease. Each time Mohammad Azharuddin crafted an innings with flicks, twirls, scampers, flows and slaps, it seemed as if he was telling the spectator how easy the art of batting was; any minute he might’ve looked up into the camera and told us to come give it a shot, nothing to it.

Suddenly that titan crumbled. It all happened very fast. The whole thing was painted in black and white (somewhat understandably and somewhat perplexingly). In the social network era, we’d have the advantage of reasoned and balanced writings to inform and embolden, and we might see things with more nuance.

As it happens, the scandal and subsequent damnation gave way to an era of Indian cricketing excellence, tournament wins, overseas victories, records, innovative cricket, a series of icons and their successors – and the whole affair was largely forgotten. For better or for worse, the wound on the psyche of the Indian fan started to heal. Not for all though – several never recovered from the shock of the match-fixing revelations, and distanced themselves from the sport.

Azhar poster

Now, Azhar is set for release. Once again, we revisit the man who scintillated with the cricket bat. This time, one hopes, the perspective will be sharper, the nuances clearer, the psychology of the man behind the mess presented in all its human frailty. Performing the part will be difficult – Azhar was laconic in his visible interactions, not given to extremes of emotions, not very expressive on or off the field. What he was like as a husband and a lover of another is something we don’t have any idea about, and will have to agree to learn about it from Emraan Hashmi’s portrayal.

To avoid the temptation to play up the character Bollywood style will be a challenge. At any rate, the movie will not come down to Emraan Hashmi’s performance. Judging from the trailer, he seems to have done a very good job of replicating the batting style well. It will be about the story, the drama, the resolution or lack thereof. We don’t want a populist panegyric to a cricketing hero, nor do we want simplistic judgment and damnation.

Humans are susceptible to salesmanship. Most of the time the salesmanship is to take money out of our pockets. Bookmakers, the skilled ones, are salesmen who come to put money in the players’ pockets. In a world where politicians are twisted, businessmen crooked and celebrities insincere, it cannot be easy to ward off the kind of temptation that visits the cricketer.

This is not to excuse the failings of sportsmen – fixing is a terrible slap on the face of the fan, and should be dealt with brutally. But if we cannot see into the soul of the offender, it is simply tea, biscuits and damnation – all too easy for us. And how better to respect the ones with integrity than to understand what they fight against. Scorsese spent an entire film showing us the easy virtue of being a self-serving Jesus, only to show the magnificence of overcoming that temptation.

A few years back a film called Shoonya, by Arindam Mitra was screened at the Osian Festival. It was a thinly disguised film on Azhar’s story with Kay Kay Menon in the lead. It was a well-made effort, with two scenes particularly that stood out in memory. One showed Satish Kaushik as the oily bookie with the gift of the soft sell pitching the fix to Kay Kay. It was classic salesmanship and devilish tempting. One wonders what a stereotypical bookie, if there is such a thing, might be like; it won’t be too far from Satish Kaushik’s portrayal.

The other scene was one of the most chilling scenes of recent years. A phone call from the Middle East, no face shown, only a voice coolly threatening dire consequences for the cricketer if any attempt is made to come clean. The voice grows increasingly menacing as it warns of what’ll happen to his wife, since she regularly visits the Middle East.

It put a lot of things immediately in perspective – fixing is a murky and dangerous beast that shows its ugly side only once you’ve made the irreversible walk down that road. It could happen to the best of us, it could happen to the most mediocre of us. Whether Azhar under-achieved as a player is a matter of debate for cricket experts as well as romantics who expected more in his final years.

Azhar comes at a time when Indian cricket is at a point of great hope. Some great things were achieved under Dhoni, and now there is a tingle in the spine about what Virat Kohli will go on to achieve. Hope is the most incredible feeling of all, and whether he reaches the heights we expect or he tanks, we have the luxury of living in the excitement to find out. Bowlers of great potential seem to be emerging now.

Despite the controversies borne of the IPL, one still expects much from a newly emerging Indian team. In the light of this, even if Azhar achieves no great goals cinematically (and the trailer doesn’t promise anything more than a jazz-age look at Indian cricket), it will at least serve as a tour guide down the room that shows the very best and the very worst of what the sport of cricket has had to offer to those who have laid their love and hopes at its feet.

(Written by Dhruv Mookerji)

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