83 is the sort of movie that knows it's won by simply existing. There is no force on earth – not even a new variant of an old virus – that will deter Indians from flocking to the theatres to enjoy a high-profile cricket film. Especially this one. The story of India's 1983 World Cup victory is so inherently mythical and miraculous that even a blank screen featuring Ranveer Singh's voice might have run to packed houses. It's all there. The class of '83 have since woven their experience into the cultural fabric of this country. And in these times of privatized nostalgia, there's nothing more potent than the origin story of a religion; Indian cricket, as we know and love-hate it, was reborn on June 25th, 1983. Yet, as I watched the Amar-Chitra-Katha-esque spirit of 83, I couldn't help but wonder: When you have nothing to lose, why not try to play?
The Kapil Dev of 83 gets peeved when fans tell him they're content with India winning just one game; that it's "enough." Nobody expects more. He wants more. The film itself remains at odds with the ambition of its protagonist – it wins a few matches (securing rights to a classic underdog tale, casting Ranveer Singh), and then basks in the adulation of existing. It wants nothing more. The screenplay is so simplistic that it stops short of being typed on screen. Half the film is a simulation of history; the other half is a giant reaction shot. In between, there's some basic brown-person-in-England roleplay. The tragedy of readymade triumphs is that I lapped it all up even as I was cringing. Wistful memories of watching my father's video cassettes of the Prudential World Cup on loop were being serviced. His Nirlon tales about Sunil Gavaskar echoed in my ears. My mediocre imagination of how it must have felt to be alive in 1983 was being validated.
But is that enough? Not for me. At no point did I mistake remembrance for engagement. Cricket is always the winner. Craft is not. 83 tries too hard to be a feeling rather than a film. The problem with stories that write themselves is that most film directors then choose to amplify the words instead of elevating them. Kabir Khan is no exception. It's true that the pause between Mohinder Amarnath rapping Michael Holding on the pads and the umpire lifting his finger at Lord's felt like a lifetime. It's true that a nation found its voice in those two seconds. In 83, the lifetime is literal: the camera cuts to the impassioned appeals of what seems like every citizen of the country and beyond, before the umpire screams out his decision in slow motion. I was half-expecting the scene to slip in a few live shots of today's audiences reacting to the wicket in cinema halls. (Last seen, Amarnath was still appealing for LBW). Which is to say, at some point, the moment lapses into a parody of itself.
Much of the film yells in the same tone. Scenes aren't staged so much as narrated. For instance, the famous West Indian fast bowling quartet is introduced not by way of a pre-game meeting or tense matchplay. The writing can't be bothered. What we get instead is this: While admiring the West Indians in the nets, one of the Indian players breaks the banter and starts reeling off the biodata of all four quicks to his teammates, as though he were an intelligence agent giving a PowerPoint presentation to his bosses. Footage of Holding, Garner, Marshall and Roberts terrorizing batsmen appears on cue. I don't mind exposition dumps, but at least try not to make it look like the Indians have never heard of the quartet before. Ditto for Srikkanth's airy monologue about the team's journey at a party: it's obvious that he's just wooing the audience with (widely recorded) anecdotes rather than reacting to a haughty British journalist. Similarly, team manager PR Man Singh (Pankaj Tripathi) is scoffed at by everything short of air particles – BCCI clerks, custom officers, journalists, the Lord's management refusing to issue him a temporary pass – to drive home the point that India entered the World Cup as rank outsiders.
Broad strokes can be fun when done right, but 83 reduces the medium to a party hat. The real Kapil Dev pouches a six in the stands. The real Mohinder Amarnath plays his father Lala Amarnath, which means he sits in front of the television set smoking a pipe. We see baby Tendulkar yelling, "I want to be an Indian cricketer!" during the victory montage. Then there's the track of a lady whose pregnancy runs in sync with India's run; I kept guessing the child would be named Dhoni or Yuvraj, but no such luck. Neena Gupta appears as Kapil's mother in Haryana; it's only a matter of time before the film cuts to her face during former companion Viv Richards' knock. The meta-ness reaches such a fever pitch that when Trevor Chappell flays the Indian bowling attack, I expected to see a silhouette shot of a rich Bengali boy in Calcutta asking his house help if all the three Chappell brothers are as talented as each other. May as well go the whole hog.
Speaking of the whole hog, 83 is a rare cricket film that – freed from the shackles of biopic density – gets its cricket right. It gets the narrative of the sport. Net-practice scenes are echoed in matchplay (reminiscent of Iqbal perfecting the 'Chakravyuh' trick). Most of the actors look convincing on the pitch, not just technique-wise but gait-wise too. Almost every player is given his moment on the field, though the film steers clear of the edgy Gavaskar-Kapil dynamic. Flashy editing isn't used to 'compose' the fluidity of play; at times, single shots reveal a bowler, batsman and fielder involved at once.
83 has a distinct advantage in that sense, like Lagaan perhaps did, because the grammar of cricket back then was still a bit raw – unadulterated by modern technology, diets, coaches and fitness. The beauty of the Indian team was their bits-and-pieces nature, with all of them looking like average men surpassing their 'aukaat' and pulling off a heist. They could afford to not look like professional athletes. Except newbie captain Kapil Dev, whom Ranveer Singh manages to make his own. Physicality and accent aside, Ranveer's real mark is his grasp of Kapil's broken-English trait. Urban actors often falter in 'unlearning' the spoken language – even Vicky Kaushal struggled in Sardar Udham – but Ranveer weaponizes Kapil's inferiority complex through his relationship with language alone, turning a soft-spoken small-town dreamer into an everyman icon by the end of the film.
It's impossible to frame any West Indian team as the "villains" – unlike, say, the Australians and the Englishmen (or the Russians in any American sports drama). 83 refuses to antagonize the merry men from the Caribbean, which is refreshing for an Indian film. Even when Vengsarkar gets hit on his face, the scowl from the bowler isn't a "teen guna lagaan" one; it's pure rivalry. But there's a downside to having no evil: the drama of 83 isn't expressed so much as summoned. The writing reaches sideways, coloring the background panels with crayon to compensate for a lack of central conflict. Kapil and his teammates tear up when they see an Indian kid waving the flag in a sea of dancing Windies fans; the Pakistani army agrees to cease shelling so that the Indian soldiers can see the final in peace; an Indian bartender and waitress at a London pub can't control their joy during the India-England semifinal; a Muslim family in a riot-stricken town struggle to fix their TV antenna; a bunch of racist skinheads clash with a bhangra-doing gang outside the stadium in a scene straight out of I – Proud to be Indian; Deepika Padukone's Romi Dev pulls of a Mohammed-Kaif's-parents move by exiting the stadium when India appears to be losing the final.
These easy vignettes evoke Clint Eastwood's Invictus, and understandably so, because one senses this film believes that 1983 was to India what the 1995 Rugby World Cup was to South Africa. While both movies overestimate the healing power of sport – a look at subsequent years (1984 for India, post-apartheid cracks in SA) might have revealed a truer picture – at least Invictus was about a politician with an idea. 83 fleetingly alludes to PM Indira Gandhi and her decision to use the World Cup as a distraction from communal rage: a scene that, like the others, looks like a hasty ingredient in a porridge of change. The bubblegum nods to cultural utopia aren't new for a Kabir Khan film, but they lack context here. The single parallel track – of a TV set uniting the Muslim family with the riot patrollers – does the job alone, but I suppose more is more in the world of a mainstream Bollywood movie. Pritam's score – featuring an awfully generic soundtrack – is testament to this.
This extends to the reaction shots, a crucial element in any sports movie. The faces of fans aren't just scene fillers; they're the visual background score, guiding film audiences into seeing the rhythm of history in real time. But in 83, it's all volume and no timing, often at odds with the on-pitch action. (West Indies being 67/2 in 23 overs is, for example, a "dominant position" while chasing a large total). At some point, the reactions must emerge from inside out – you build into it, like the emotional coach in MS Dhoni: The Untold Story – but in 83, some characters exist solely as viewers throughout the entire film. That's their only job. The track of the two Punjabi factory workers in London comes closest to earning its arc, but the execution is too basic to make an impact.
It must sound like I'm nitpicking here, and that these little flaws shouldn't matter in the larger scheme of things. But for a sports-film enthusiast like myself, these are deal breakers. The tacky peripheral vision prevents me from losing myself in the excesses of a masala movie. The good isn't 'enough' to overlook the bad. As I said, 83 is too satisfied with the story on a platter. It's the kind of film that, contrary to the team it highlights, remains happy to win hearts and not trophies. In a way, it proudly gets eliminated in the group stages, takes the scheduled pre-final flight home, some players stay back for their European and US holidays, and it is – to this day – resting on the laurels of defeating the mighty West Indies in the opening match of the tournament. Meanwhile, I found a fantastic chartered accountant named Sachin Tendulkar.