Director: Jayprad Desai
Writers: Kiran Yadnyopavit, Kapil Sawant
Cast: Shreyas Talpade, Anjali Patil, Parambrata Chaterjee, Ashish Vidyarthi
Streaming on: Disney+ Hotstar
A film was imminent the moment a 41-year-old Pravin Tambe made his professional debut in the 2013 Indian Premier League. 41. Forty-one. (Context: MS Dhoni is currently 40). No first-class cricket, no Ranji selection, a liaison officer at Mumbai's D.Y. Patil Stadium, a coach in their academy, an amateur club cricketer for 25 long years. Growing up, I thought The Rookie (2002) – a Hollywood movie about a pitcher who made his Major League baseball debut at 35 – was a one-in-a-million fairytale. And as age and fitness took precedence over talent and reputation in the Dhoni-Kohli era, a late-late-bloomer story became even more improbable. Without hyperbole, Tambe's belated emergence – and subsequent success as a stocky leg spinner in T20 cricket – is a modern-day sporting miracle. The question, then, was: What kind of film was it going to be? Would it be an all-out Bollywood spectacle where an aging star would give himself a second innings? Would it be a low-budget indie that goes all "method" with the bowler's tough life? Or would it be a middle-of-the-road Hindi biopic where the lead actor's career would uncannily inform the cricketer's journey?
Kaun Pravin Tambe? falls in the last category – with a bit of method thrown in. Everything about the movie is designed to reflect the toil and timelessness of Pravin Tambe's legacy. This is a grafter of a narrative. It's long but indefatigable at 134 minutes, finding triumph in its last 10 minutes after striving for two whole hours. Much like the well wishers in Tambe's life, there are long phases in the film where we, as viewers, stop engaging and believing. We stop taking it seriously. The struggle is endearing but challenging to watch: an endless loop of rejection, exhaustion, multi-tasking, grit and everyman delusion. But somehow, the film – like its hero – pulls through before it's too late. Witnessing pain is rarely rewarding till the glory arrives. As a result, it's not a great movie by any stretch of imagination. But if there's one thing Tambe showed, it's that sports is not always about pursuing greatness. At its best, sports is achingly mortal: a confluence of the ordinary and extraordinary. A career like Tambe's – or Tabish Khan, or Jim Morris – turns sport into an extension of living rather than the pinnacle of life. It brings us closer to the field, and the dreams competing in it.
Shreyas Talpade is a meta fit: not only because he started his film career as a bowler in Iqbal (2005) but also because he has been around – on the fringes of mainstream stardom – with ageless spirit. I've always liked Talpade, and found it frustrating that he never made that leap into the big league. His stubborn choice of multi-starrer comedies even ties in with Tambe's reluctance to turn leg-spinner from mediocre medium pacer. Iqbal's bowling technique works wonders here, too, because it's the fast bowler's leap at the crease that distinguishes Tambe's spin from the rest – along with that medium-pacer follow-through. It's quite clearly a moderated action: one that often fooled batsmen into expecting Kumble-like skiddiness instead of the loopy flight and drift that Tamble would generate. Talpade is equally deceptive as well, easing us into a "cricket film" template before hitting us with Tambe's tireless body language: in montages of working, training, family time, commuting, trying, interviewing and playing. I can only hope that this film becomes Talpade's IPL – not so much a second innings as a long-overdue pro debut.
As is evident, though, Kaun Pravin Tambe? has its issues. While it's romantic to connect them to Tambe's own craft, the fact is these are film-making limitations. For instance, the background score and soundtrack are unimaginative templates. The motivational Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy-esque tracks have gotten old, and perhaps it's time for a new grammar of underdog music. The cricket on the field is supposed to be club-level, but still looks unconvincingly shot, choreographed and edited. In terms of writing, Tambe's last-ditch IPL selection comes out of nowhere. It feels a bit random. I'm all for creative license – like combining his debut with his hat-trick taking performance against KKR – but perhaps the presence of a scout or two might have set the stage for that Rajasthan Royals call.
Perhaps the most jarring element of the film is the "antagonist". Not for the first time, it's a smug journalist (Parambrata Chatterjee), who is bitter because of his failed cricketing career and poor book sales. His contempt for Tambe is not unfounded, for the bowler represents an undying will that he is secretly envious of. But his character is too overbearing; he refers to Tambe as a glorified gully-cricket bowler – and even humiliates him in a typical '90s scene, while drinking at a dance bar where Tambe is a waiter. I'm not saying people like him don't exist – Boria Majumdar, anyone? – but he's only a peg, symbolic of the "system," in a film that doesn't need a villain. His presence also complicates an easy story; he is the narrator, which means the film happens in a bunch of flashbacks. It doesn't help that the newsroom he works in looks more like a poorly dressed public library.Having said that, the true identity of Kaun Pravin Tambe? is rooted in the city it represents. Mumbai defines Tambe, and his dance between conformism and desire. I like the way his tiny Mulund flat is filmed, the way his family occupies that space, the way he's always on the move, and how each of Tambe's odd jobs – accounting, diamond sorting, supervising, waiting on tables – feel like authentic little universes of their own. More importantly, the film gets the Mumbai "maidan" ecosystem and the sports-quota culture. The gymkhana grounds, trial nets and Kanga League fields convey the texture of low-grade cricket.
Tambe's priority – to find a company with a good Shield cricket team, irrespective of the actual profession – reveals a dimension of Indian sport rarely addressed in movies. One of the film's best sequences is centered on this: A jobless Tambe sneaks into his brother's shipping company team for a crucial game and plays so well that the managing director – a passionate cricketer himself – employs him instantly. At another point, Tambe plays every local tennis-ball tournament so that he can sell off his man-of-the-match prizes (mixers, washing machines, bikes) to earn his family some extra income. All of this – including Ashish Vidyarthi's Achrekar-style coach – makes for a sweaty, sobering peak into a grassroots world that's often eschewed in favour of generic underdog arcs.
Maybe it's fitting that a film like this opens with a byte of Rahul Dravid – and culminates with Dravid (played by an actor) picking Tambe for the Rajasthan Royals. Despite a glittering international career, Dravid himself was revered as a hard grafter rather than a born strokemaker. A single innings of his – blocking, persevering, adapting, perspiring – can be seen as a microcosm of Tambe's whole life. A nice moment in Kaun Pravin Tambe? features Tambe competing for a Ranji spot with the son of a man he used to play age-group cricket with. Similarly, batting for Dravid was about outlasting his opponents. With each shot, he would survive and thrive at once. With each passing year, Tambe thrived on surviving. After all, a wall defends, but it also endures. A wall is a shield, but it's also a home.