It is a bit like the infinite number of monkeys at an infinite number of typewriters eventually writing Hamlet. This was how The Guardian writer Matthew Engel described India's historic World Cup win in 1983. Author Siddhartha Vaidyanathan quoted Engel in a piece he wrote for The Nightwatchman in 2019. Siddhartha also included the rest of Engel's quote – Engel wrote: And there were an infinite number of us typewriter-types feeling like monkeys on Saturday.
They were feeling like monkeys because this win wasn't just unexpected. It was impossible. And yet, Kapil Dev and his dream 11 accomplished it. 83 is a recreation of what transpired between 1 March and June 25, when the finals were played at the Lord's stadium in London. Director Kabir Khan and writers Sumit Arora, Vasan Bala and Sanjay Puran Singh Chauhan take us through the highs and lows of this incredible underdog story. They do away with character development, subplot, team politics, personal angst. The narrative is only focused on cricket – key highlights of key matches and the moments in between matches.
These men weren't just battling Herculean odds on the field. They didn't even have enough money to do their laundry. They lived on a stipend of 15 pounds a day and washed their dirty clothes in the hotel room bathtub. The vegetarians among them ate achaar and bread. Meanwhile, the team manager Man Singh – the lone support system they had – juggled return tickets, which had been booked for a date before the semi-finals because no one expected them to get anywhere close to the finish line.
83 is unabashedly manipulative. The script pushes every button with the subtlety of a sledge-hammer, mostly using interminable reaction shots of fans and family. Cricket is positioned as a cure-all – the sport ushers in love, communal harmony, national pride and a sense of identity for a nation still struggling to establish itself on the world stage. The ideas and execution are simplistic. But here's the thing – it works. When a young child picks up the Indian flag and waves it enthusiastically, something stirs. When Kapil saves the day with a miraculous 175-not out knock against the Zimbabwe team, you cheer as though you didn't already know that it had happened. When Kapil, in his heavily accented English, tells the disdainful British media, 'We come here to win,' you are instantly proud. In an interview Kabir Khan had said: 'Can I make India feel the same after 39 years?' He and his A-list team – editor Nitin Baid, DOP Aseem Mishra, composer Pritam with background music by Julius Packiam – actually do. I wept happily and copiously through the film.
Much of the credit must go to the man at the center – Ranveer Singh. The actor is a shape-shifter. He transforms into Kapil Dev. He's not imitating. He's inhabiting. Kabir skillfully peppers the film with photographs of the original players and a few also make an appearance. These moments reinforce that what we are seeing is, in fact, true. But this breaking of the fourth wall doesn't come off as jerky. The transition from Kapil Dev to Ranveer Singh and vice versa, is seamless. Ranveer delivers a superb performance. Casting Deepika Padukone as Kapil Dev's wife Romi is also smart – when the actor walks into the frame, there is already a shared camaraderie and history. The film doesn't need to establish it.
What's even better is that the film doesn't prostrate in front of its two stars. The other actors aren't sidelined. Each one gets a moment to shine – Ammy Virk as Balwinder Singh Sandhu, Saqib Saleem as Mohinder Amarnath, Jatin Sarna as Yashpal Sharma, Tahir Raj Bhasin as Sunil Gavaskar and Jiiva as Krishnamachari Srikkanth are all strong. There's also Pankaj Tripathi, as the perpetually harassed Man Singh. There is a quiet ferocity about him, which is terrific. Sandeep Patil's son, actor Chirag Patil plays his father, which feels like nepotism done right.
83 also works because the film is suffused with nostalgia. The big landline telephones and those long-distance calls, which invariably ended with people at both ends shouting 'hello, hello' because the connection would be lost; the fleeting glimpse of a Salma Sultan look-alike on Doordarshan; the big hair-dos. The film harks back to a gentler, simpler time and exhorts us to leap higher and try harder. These men inspire us to dare greatly.
At two hours and thirty-two minutes, 83 is much too long. There are stretches that sag and the many match sequences become repetitive. Especially if, like me, you're not a cricket fan.
But the film ends on such a note of euphoria that the longueurs are forgiven. At one point, Kapil Dev tells his team: Har match mein aukaad se zyada khelna hoga. All these decades later, that's still sound life advice.
You can see 83 at a theatre near you. Please do wear a mask.