Cast: Madhurr Mittal Mahima Nambiyar
Director: MS Sripathy
Runtime: 159 Minutes
Available in: Theatres
When 800 begins to narrate the life of Muttiah Muralitharan, it starts with the Srilanka of 1945, almost three decades before Muralitharan was born. It was when bonded labourers from Tamil Nadu were sent to Sri Lanka. One among them was Muralitharan’s grandparents and the community soon came to be called Indian Tamils in Srilanka or Hill Country Tamils (Malayaga Tamilar). MS Sripathy’s intention to begin the story with the origin of his community and not his birth is a commendable choice because his biopic delves deep into his identity and the constant need to prove it.
At one point, Muralitharan claims that it is not about whether he is a Sri Lankan or Tamilan but that he is a cricketer. To which, his father replies, “Nammaloda adaiyaalatha naamalae nirnaika mudinja, inga prechanaye ila. (If we could decide our own identities, there would be no issues here.) A visual analogue of Muralitharan's statement can be seen when we first meet the cricketer as a young boy (played by a superb Rithvik). When the elder boys in his neighbourhood do not let him join their cricket game, he says he would field for both teams; a signifier of how he always remains somewhere in between, trying to balance his identities as a Srilankan and Tamilan.
Another major event the film extensively covers is the chucking controversy, where he was suspected of having thrown the ball by flexing his elbow too much. The film is at its best when it is about the controversy and how it affected Muralitharan. Be it in explaining his issue or how ICC (International Cricket Council) dealt with it, the makers ensure it is spelt out clearly to the general audience without compromising on depicting the emotional impact it had on the player.
The film explores his inner struggles throughout its runtime but always keeps the questioners as outsiders. For example, when he gives an autograph to a Tamil guy from Sri Lanka, the man sarcastically asks if he ever speaks Tamil. When he is constantly ignored during team selection, people suggest it is because he is not a Sinhalese (native Srilankans). But when he joins the team, we do not see if this identity affects his relationship with his fellow players. In fact, except for his relationship with then-captain Arjuna Ranatunga, we are never told if he had any close friendships within the team or outside. At some point, his wife, Madhimalar (Mahima Nambiar), is suddenly introduced, and though they have a lovely chat a little later, such random placements pull you out of his world and always keep you at a distance. So much that even when you are witnessing his own journey, you don't feel like you're travelling with him. You see all that happened to him, even those in his personal life. But you never get to know Muralitharan, the person, and how he actually sees all these events in his life.
What upsets you the most is how his wife is introduced. It is through on-screen text! The film uses the technique several times to give you more details or facts about his life. However, this technique mostly makes it hard for the viewers to understand the story. Take the scene where he takes 16 wickets in a Test match, for instance. The sequence is already rushed with Muralitharan constantly taking wickets and is accompanied by an odd background score of whistles and thara local tune-like music. While you could have easily missed out on these 16 wickets as the text plays over the scene, it is even tougher to read it fully because the words quickly fade away. Likewise, except for the last Test match, the usual thrill and excitement for a cricket match are swapped for matter-of-fact captures of the historic feats.
That said, there are also a few brilliant filmmaking touches. When Muralitharan gets selected to join the National squad for the first time, we are not told through any major announcements or an amplified background score. Instead, we learn about it when his parents worriedly talk to one of the selection heads about sending their son to a different country. The scenes featuring only Muralitharan and the stadium are poetic. The cricketer possibly looks at the stadium as a place where he can be free of his identity and just play his heart out. Probably an empty stadium is one that never judges him. When he enters England for the first time, his fellow players are trying to close all the windows in the dressing room to avoid the cold breeze. But Muralitharan stands outside the boundary point, gazing at the stadium and the foreign players who are training. At the end of the tournament, when he is sort of mocked by his teammates, he opens the same door and walks out to the balcony with his tears visible only to the stadium. Years later, when he is enjoying a peak moment in his career and walks out the same way, you expect it to be a moment of ecstasy. But then he witnesses an event happening in the ground which completely changes the way he looks at his career.
Madhur Mittal proves to be a wonderful casting choice. Not just in the way he brings Muralitharan in front of your eyes and makes you feel his inner struggles, but how he shows the transformation of Muralitharan over the years. If innocence, blind confidence and nervousness are what Mittal shows the first time Muralitharan steps on the land of England as a 19-year-old, the next time he visits the place, Mittal completely changes his body language and steps out of the bus with more confident attitude and a burning aim to rewrite his own history. The cricketer has multiple records to his name. But I think the filmmakers chose to centre their narrative around the 800 Test wickets milestone for a reason. It is not to show how he managed to take those 800 wickets but to tell about the other 200 wickets (to reach 1000) that he chose not to try for.