Shane: Portrait Of A Genius On Ire

Documentaries like Shane are a reminder that success is a personal language, not a public principle
Shane: Portrait Of A Genius On Ire

Directors: David Alrich, Jon Carey, Jackie Munro
Genre: Documentary
Streaming on: Disney+ Hotstar

When I heard of Shane Warne's death, I wasn't shocked. I was just sad. The first image to pop into my head had everything and nothing to do with him. It wasn't a moment from his glorious cricket career. It wasn't the many balls of the century he bowled, or the century he missed with the bat. It wasn't even a scandalous headline. The first image, instead, was a voiceover – from a Hollywood biopic about two Formula One rivals. Ron Howard's Rush was defined by a clash of personalities: Niki Lauda, a clinical student of the sport and devoted family man, versus James Hunt, a flamboyant playboy and gifted driver who defeats Lauda to win the 1976 World Championship. It was Hunt's first and only title. In the end, Niki Lauda speaks of Hunt with a mix of disappointment and envy: "When I saw him next in London, seven years later, me as a champion again, him as a broadcaster, he was barefoot on a bicycle with a flat tire, still living each day like his last. When I heard he died, aged 45, of a heart attack, I wasn't surprised. I was just sad."

The beauty of Shane Warne is that he was both James Hunt and Niki Lauda at once: the man on the bicycle and the multiple world champion. The goon and the grafter. The aesthete and the acerbic. The drifter and the doer. The romantic and the ruthless. The excess and the engineer. The what-if and the wow. Athletes are routinely categorized as either one or the other. But in Warne's case, one couldn't exist without the other. The documentary, Shane, captures this dance of divergence without breaking a sweat. Fittingly, it's in the talking-head footage of Shane that many of us might notice Warne having different-coloured eyes; one's light green, the other blue. The condition might be called heterochromia, but in terms of who Warne was, it's a mystical manifestation of his fire-and-ice paradox.

The documentary itself is a candid marriage of maverick and man. The highs and lows of an iconic career march hand in hand with the highs and lows of an unabashed life. As far as structure is concerned, Shane hits all the expected beats – the Gatting ball (Warne admits it's a fluke) and the anatomy of the cultural moment, his meteoric rise in the '90s, the 'bookie' scandal, the birth of his kids, the injury before the 1999 World Cup, the mom-induced diuretic ban, the breakdown of his marriage on the eve of the 2005 Ashes, his Man of the Series performance, his 700th test wicket, and finally, the Rajasthan Royals miracle. I particularly enjoyed the throwaway moments – like Warne describing his body-altering English county stint, the eloquent Mark Nicholas explaining Warne with words like "the art of leg-spin is the creation of something that isn't there," and celebrity friends like Ed Sheeran and Chris Martin chiming in about his single-minded focus. The editing patterns are interesting, too, with the more confrontational incidents – such as Warne and Tendulkar reliving their 1998 duel, or Warne and ex-wife Simone recalling their divorce – cut and composed in a manner that creates the illusion of the two speakers sitting opposite and reacting to each other. I noticed this technique in the Lee-Hesh documentary series, Break Point; it was equally effective, given the duality and parallel perspectives of the same story.

I just wish the film-making was more relaxed – less formal – in places. I don't mean lofty visuals, better access or cooler piece-to-cameras. The few filler shots of Warne spending time with his parents, for instance, look a bit staged. It comes with the territory, especially when film-makers set out to reveal the softer sides of overexposed superstars. Ditto for his charity work which, though noble and true, feels like a narrative balancer. In that sense, Shane is a bit flabby and indulgent in parts. But I'd also like to believe this is 'method' storytelling; the film-making somewhat mirrors his presence on the field. While watching friends and colleagues speak of Warne's brilliance, I kept expecting their voices to crack. But Shane was shot much before his death, as an independent ode to arguably the greatest bowler of all time. So this is by no means the cinema of remembrance. Yet, it is eerily prescient in the way it presents the player as a flesh-and-blood individual.

The moments with his three children, in particular, have a final-word air about them. I could swear I heard a few sentences trail off. When a daughter tears up while describing the lion-hearted champion her father was, it's a little unnerving. The poignance is serendipitous – the faces in the documentary are describing a career that's over, but they're also speaking of a version of the man that's passed. The context is imminent, as is evident from this review, where I've struggled with tenses. It's strange to mention Shane Warne as someone in the past: as history rather than history-maker. The only "late" associated with Warne was mostly in terms of his bowling: late rip/drift/dip/turn.

On a personal front, Shane Warne had a telling influence on my childhood. Being a cricket fan in India comes with the trappings of moral pressure. It's not good enough for your heroes to be great players; they must be family-friendly role models and infallible humans, too. But while my friends worshiped Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid for their image as much as their craft, I found myself gravitating towards "flawed geniuses" like Shane Warne and Brian Lara. (What is the term "flawed genius" anyway? It's perfection that's unnatural as a concept; genius is free-flowing, shapeless and entirely human by definition). Players like Warne, Lara and even Yuvraj Singh came with an asterisk mark in South Asian culture – they were said to be skillful despite their lifestyle. They were often romanticized as proverbial phoenixes rising from the ashes. And they were always on the verge of "wasting" their potential, whatever that meant.

But I instantly took to Warne for the way he lived and played in the same breath. He smoked cigarettes in the dressing room, packed his tour suitcases with baked bean cans, loved his beer and nightclubs. At no point did it feel like he was not realizing his full potential, or that he was throwing away his gifts for a good time. He was, contrary to Indian faith, being the best version of himself. In the process, Shane Warne helped me understand my own family better. Unlike others in the city, my parents openly smoked, drank, partied, fought and ate. Warne's unadulterated drive made me trust in their ability to excel either way, irrespective of the choices they made. It made me consider that virtuosity may have nothing to do with virtue.

When I watched Warne own the global stage and make spin sexy again, I also saw in him the elders of my family triumph on their own terms – without conforming to the cautionary-tale-versus-fairytale narrative. And I saw in them a James Hunt-sized heart and a Niki Lauda-shaped head. Documentaries like Shane are a reminder that success is a personal language, not a public principle. It is the art of creating something that isn't there: like riding a bicycle, barefoot, with a flat tire. Or like nearly getting burnt alive in a car crash, only to return two races later. Most people die because they stop living. But legends like Shane Warne die because they live.

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