Every other day, I find myself keenly trying to equate the actors with their real-life counterparts in the pre-production stills of Kabir Khan's '83. The much-anticipated sports drama, based on Kapil Dev and his triumphant 1983 World Cup team, is an important film for mainstream Bollywood, given that cricket has not yet been afforded an out-and-out "historical-event movie" (like Hockey has one in Chak De! India) on this scale. There have been fictional versions (Lagaan), individual hero narratives (Dhoni: The Untold Story, Azhar, Iqbal, Patiala House), and stories that employ cricket as part of a whole (Kai Po Che!, Ferrari ki Sawaari, Jannat, Chamatkar), but arguably none as moment-centric as '83.
In an industry whose artists are notoriously allergic to taking a stance, perhaps it's no surprise that cricket – the country's largest religion – remains one of Hindi cinema's most malnourished genres. In fact, unlike football, the marriage of cricket and cinema is hardly a global phenomenon. Out of the twenty-odd professionally competing nations, the onus of "cricket movies" automatically falls upon the sport's richest and most popular exponent, India. And while we do produce more cricket-themed films than, say, an England or an Australia, it's not half as much – in both quality and quantity – as the American football and baseball dramas churned out by Hollywood. To this day, other than Lagaan, you'd be hard-pressed to locate a world-class cricket feature.
I have some theories about why Bollywood struggles with the cricket movie:
In a country where cinema competes with cricket, perhaps it's only natural that the union of these two opponents is messy. As a result, one eventually assumes the shape of the other to enable the monetization of their coupling. The post-Lagaan era has seen cricket virtually transform into a medium of entertainment – the tagline of the inaugural IPL even read "Cricket weds Entertainment". The sport does not just represent a craft aimed at purists anymore. It is now an all-in-one package – of dance, action, reality TV, brand integrations and diverse voiceover – readily designed to be consumed by the commoners. In cinematic parlance, the cosmetic T20 makeover has turned cricket from an arthouse flick into a massy masala potboiler. This modern image is already mainstream enough. And yet, Indian filmmakers make the mistake of trying to commercialize the grammar of cricket further by building in all sorts of narrative gimmickry under the guise of cultural inclusivity. These themes become hashtags that override the "peg" of the game itself.
So you see a woman infiltrating a men's cricket team disguised as a #sardarji in the utterly silly Dil Bole Hadippa!.
You see Mandira Bedi attempting to capitalize on her IPL-anchor fame by going from bespectacled #behenji to spaghetti-bloused spinster in Meerabai Not Out. You see a needless sub-plot about #Tendulkar's missing Ferrari dotting the perfectly serviceable underdog arc of a Parsi prodigy and his middle-class family in Ferrari Ki Sawaari. You see a 13-year-old #orphan making the Indian cricket team (captained by Rahul Bose, no less) because he plays with #Kapil Dev's magic bat, in Chain Kulii Ki Main Kulii. You see a match-fixer with a #conscience in both Jannat and Azhar. You see suave #villains and emotionally manipulative circumstances (a son with cerebral palsy) dilute the novel tale of a coach who turns a wrestling outfit into a gully cricket team, in Say Salaam India. You see the complex politics of the sports-migrant syndrome in Patiala House – Akshay Kumar essentially plays one of the decade's several South Asian players adopted by alien nationalities – reduced to the overbearing hues (suicide threats, heart-attacks) of an Indian father-son narrative. You see a truckload of #cameos by everyone from Brett Lee to Pat Symcox to compensate for the basicness of the Harman Baweja starrer, Victory.
You even see a heartthrob-turned-terrorist in a #helicopter hover around Aamir Khan's first last-ball-six in Dev Anand's Awwal Number, a ridiculous movie that remains most self-respecting Indian fans' first abiding memory of cricket on…film. Apart from that Gavaskar cameo in Maalamal, of course.
Cricket isn't as visually free-flowing as football, basketball, golf or motorsport. Even in its most 'snackable' format, the broadcasters' cameras use a broad frame to follow a ball that originates from the action on a 22-yard pitch at least 120 times an innings. The personality of the game is inherently slow-burning due to the cumulative buildup of its longevity. This makes the sport difficult to manufacture – the simulations, suspense – in context of a dramatized film. Firstly, because cricket is consumed by over a billion people, filmmakers find it harder to cheat with the technicalities and fool (relatively informed) audiences. They don't have the luxury to frame their actors as athletes; they cannot, for instance, rely on the uninterrupted continuity of a ball being bowled and hit to a fielder in a single take. In the rare cases they do (Amazon Prime's Inside Edge, Dhoni: The Untold Story, Netflix's Selection Day), one can easily detect the slowness of the ball, the rookie skills (a player's authenticity can best be gauged by his/her awkwardness in batting pads) and the fluctuating frame rates.
Hence, a team sport ends up being shot like an individual one. Each of the three disciplines – bowling, batting, fielding – are shot separately. The cricket is cut like a story, despite the fact that cricket, unfiltered, is already long-form storytelling. The very concept of editing – the passage of time, and especially the splicing together of tighter close-ups in order to combat the game's master-shot staticness – isn't suited to the spiritual core of cricket. It's easier in cricket movies to snap out of the moment if a skill is unconvincingly performed. Take, for instance, the mechanics of Shreyas Talpade's climactic 'Chakravyuh' delivery in Iqbal. The fielder dives to take a spectacular one-handed catch. But the trajectory of the ball suggests that it appears to have been thrown by an assistant director from close proximity rather than one that is dipping from the blade of a batsman's lofted cover-drive.
There are, however, a few Hindi films that organically ingrain this jarring technique into their narratives. For instance, Lagaan is set in 1893, back when cricket was still amateurly played as a gentle, loopy upper-class sport. Age, skill and physicality were no hindrances. Which is why it isn't inconceivable that a ragtag team of angry colonized newbies upset an orthodox bunch of Englishmen by making a mockery of convention. The defiant physics of the action suits the villagers because they are simultaneously discovering the sport while competing in it. The real-life equivalent: West Indies' decade-long T20 pyrotechnics against the world's more traditional teams.
Then there's the famous inter-college match in Chamatkar. The final between (bad) DD college and (good) RK college has the advantage of featuring unrecognized faces, and therefore actual cricket hobbyists rather than actors parading as players. Only the frizzy-haired left-arm-spinning DD captain looks familiar; the boy, listed as Ashutosh Gowarikar in the credits, would go on to direct a film called Lagaan. But the reason the game's blatant ordinariness – Johnny Lever's nutty commentary, the segregated shot-taking – really works is because the plot, of a ghost sabotaging the enemy team, enables the unlikely nature of the game. The makers count on fondly parodying the sport rather than expressing it, a bit like what Stephen Chow's Shaolin Soccer does for football. Think about it: Who doesn't want to see a corrupt umpire getting a heart-attack after being manhandled by a vengeful spirit?
But perhaps the most functional use of cricket's flawed editing language is exhibited by Abhishek Kapoor's Kai Po Che!. In particular, a sequence where passionate ex-cricketer Ishaan (Sushant Singh Rajput) discovers young Ali's (Digvijay Deshmukh) talent on a dusty Ahmedabad maidaan. Ishaan challenges the precocious boy to smash him for 6 sixes in an over. Ali manages 3 before collapsing from dehydration. But notice the change in editing patterns with each ball. Ishaan is casual on the first ball; he humours the child with a loosener: The camera internalizes Ishaan's condescension – both of them appear in a frame that shows Ishaan almost complete his action in a single take. Until it cuts to a "retro angle" the moment Ali unexpectedly pulls the ball for six.
This retro angle – familiar in '70s and '80s cricket broadcasts – is a product of cricket once being a bowler's game; it indicates a skewed power-dynamic where the bowlers, chests heaving and rhythm building, are displayed in all their aggressive glory, with the batsman's back to the camera. The aura of the intimidating West Indian quicks sprinting in – their figures growing in size with each stride – is replicated in how tall Ishaan perceives a pint-sized Ali here. It's a bowler's game at this point, which is why we see Ali react from behind his own stumps. Over the next two balls, we see him hit Ishaan from frontal angles, indicating that the power is tilting in his favour. The third ball even concludes with a low-angle silhouette of Ishaan straining hard at the bowling crease – a sign that he is now a pawn in a batsman's game. Not unlike the bowlers of today, who run in on flat pitches with their backs to the lens.
As Ishaan mentors Ali hereafter, we see this psychological progression of angles in sync with boy's innings: We initially see him square-cut from behind the stumps until he slog-sweeps from the front. Arguably the most technically accomplished moment in 'cricket cinema' occurs when Ali finally masters the art of offside batting. He stands tall in the nets and plays a perfect back-foot off-drive; the camera captures his stance from an imaginary fielder's vantage point, making the toughest shot in the game unravel in one fluid motion. Multiple elements – timing, footwork, the solid crunch of bat hitting ball – beautifully merge together in one frame. But this is a rare sight at the movies; it brings to mind the purity of a boy breaking free under the gaze of men twice his size…in an unrehearsed documentary.
Cricket, by design, is not a condition that fans – who often double up as moviegoers – hope to see redesigned. Its unifying effect on everyday life is intangible. Its resonance lies not so much in the absolute physicality of the sport as in the limitless improvisation of the escape it offers. This naturally lends itself to the DNA of non-fiction filmmaking, where varied situations can be accessed (as opposed to accessorized) through the prism of cricket. Beyond All Boundaries, a 2013 documentary co-produced by The Big Bang Theory's Kunal Nayyar, comes close to depicting this fusion of tones. Three parallel narratives – of future Test opener Prithvi Shaw, India superfan Sudhir and aspiring women's cricketer Akshaya – form a modest picture of three disparate Indias orbiting in a single cricketing solar system.
The problem, though, is one that is also visible in other homegrown documentaries such as Sachin: A Billion Dreams, as well as several of its fictional Bollywood cousins. The makers cannot resist celebrating a culture over examining or critiquing it: BAB uses the hasty backdrop of India's 2011 World Cup campaign to publicize the "texture" of its private narratives, while Sachin merely becomes a nostalgic homage to its divine subject. The journalistic nature of the medium is compromised in lieu of India's inherent deference to religion and celebrityhood. This is symptomatic of a larger sociocultural shortcoming, where artists hesitate to ask difficult questions through their work, in effect choosing to highlight the good rather than spotlight the bad. Consequently, you get 'masala' movies like Jannat and shows like Inside Edge hinting at spot-fixing and inhouse malpractices, but sacrificing investigative heft at the altar of dramatic license.
The risk of a honest job, instead, is left to those from "lesser" cricketing nations. Some of the foremost examples: Stevan Riley's incisive inspection of the Caribbean cricketing heyday in Fire In Babylon, and the inspirational but intimate rise of the Afghanistan cricket team in Out of the Ashes. Most notable is the fate of Death of a Gentleman, a hard-hitting exposé on the systematic decline of Test cricket and inclusivity in favour of shortsighted economics. The now-underground film jolted the "Big 3" cricket boards (India, England, Australia) enough for them to practically blacklist its makers. One of them, Cricinfo wordsmith Jarrod Kimber, even had his press pass abruptly revoked in the wake of his 'nosy' project.
In a tragic way, it's no surprise that the voice of this film has been steadily suppressed by the powers that be. In reflecting a shadowy epidemic of the game, it also reflects an evaluative intelligence that is severely lacking in the game's storytellers. It dares to question the sport's holy gatekeepers. In the process, the narrative unwittingly serves as a cautionary tale for anyone who sets out to present the "uncut version" of a culture. A sense of truth rarely bodes well with a medium that thrives on editing – and, by extension, lying – in the most efficient way possible. What is cinema, after all, if not a series of carefully chosen highlights?