'Azhar' review: This Emraan Hashmi-starrer is an opportunity lost

Anna MM Vetticad

May,16 2016 12:00 33 IST

For an industry that has avoided biopics through most of its existence – fearing lawsuits, thin-skinned fans, a national penchant for idolatry, violent reactions to political hot potatoes and also, perhaps, its own limited investment in research – Bollywood has certainly taken to the genre with a vengeance in recent years. After the box-office successes of Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (2013) and Mary Kom (2014), comes Azhar just months before the celluloid biography of M.S. Dhoni.

Tony D’Souza’s film takes on the story of arguably the most controversial sportsperson of 20th century India, a figure first revered and later reviled, former Indian cricket captain and batsman Mohammad Azharuddin. An opening disclaimer tells us that this is “not meant to be a biopic” of Azharuddin but a “fictionalized dramatic representation of incident(s)…for entertainment purposes only”.

The claim is amusing since the film is about a Hyderabad-born Indian batsman jiske naam mein hi Mohammad hai” but who is popularly addressed as Azhar, who came from humble beginnings, made his international cricket debut in the 1980s, hit a century in each of his first three Tests, was married young to a woman called Naureen, captained India, hit headlines not just for his on-field successes but also for his affair and subsequent marriage to an actress called Sangeeta and was banned for life by the country’s top cricket body on charges of match fixing, with the ban subsequently being set aside by a court over a decade later.

Not a biopic? Okay.

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Emraan Hashmi in 'Azhar'. Image from Facebook.

The shy boy who fumbled his way through interviews, who still swallows more words than he lets out of his mouth, yet managed to charm a high-profile, glamorous star from 1980-90s Bollywood (Salman Khan’s ex-girlfriend Sangeeta Bijlani, no less), is without doubt fascinating even to a non-cricket fan.

That he had a scintillating career before he was disgraced makes him a troubled icon even now for cricket maniacs. Azharuddin had once famously said he was victimised by the cricketing establishment because he is a minority community member, which makes him highly relevant in the current socially and politically volatile atmosphere (note: he later apologised for the remark).

The film fails in its treatment of all three aspects of Azhar’s life.

While his initially hesitant and then comfortably boring relationship with his first wife is well established, it skims over his liaison with his second wife. In fact, Sangeeta remains a distant creature throughout, a woman he seems to have fallen for primarily out of sympathy when he realises that glamour dolls have feelings.

More disappointingly, Azhar does not even touch upon the potential communal angle, an element that was handled with such delicacy and beauty in Shimit Amin’s Chak De! India (2007) starring Shah Rukh Khan.

The film truly does itself in though by inexplicably serving up very little cricket. Even the worst screenplay might have been lifted by some suspenseful on-screen matches, but Azhar remains a sports film sans the sport.

What we get instead is a half-baked, half-hearted attempt to declare Azharuddin innocent of match-fixing charges. Even if the job of discussing the nitty-gritty of the case is left to cricket experts, this question is bound to strike even a layperson: if indeed the BCCI (not mentioned by name) had framed Azhar back then, what were its motivations?

By not even bothering to address that point, this film lets down the man whose reputation it appears to be trying to redeem in the public eye.

Azhar’s tepid pace and cursory writing are not its only follies. Nargis Fakhri bobbed her head through her debut Bollywood film Rockstar in 2011. Five years later, her performance as Sangeeta relies entirely on her hotness to tide over her awkward dialogue delivery and inability to handle serious emotions.

A further let-down comes in the ordinary execution of her big moment in the film: the resurrection of the hit song Oye Oye from the 1989 hit Tridev which starred Bijlani. The success of that number is the only memorable element in the former actress’ indifferent filmography, yet the choreography and remix are so lukewarm that you have to wonder why the filmmaker even bothered with it.

Though Fakhri is a poor choice, there are others in the cast who are not.

It is easy to take Emraan Hashmi lightly considering that through most of his career he has played pretty much the same character – the romantic rascal – with varying storylines. He revealed his acting chops though in Dibakar Banerjee’s Shanghai (2012). Here, he does not manage Azhar’s bumbling speech but nails the walk and, more important, gives the cricketer a certain vulnerability that is hard to resist even when all else around him in the film fails.

Prachi Desai too has played more or less the same character through her short career: a simple, innocent, pretty young thing. There’s more to her character and her performance in this film though. Her Naureen is controlled, her heartbreak believable.

In a small role as Azhar’s Naanujaan, Kulbhushan Kharbanda is a loveable presence as always. Rajesh Sharma delivers a chameleon-like performance as the slimy bookie MK Sharma. Manjot Singh too makes a mark in a brief role as a turbanned batsman-turned-commentator modelled on Navjot Singh Sidhu. Without making a laboured over-the-top effort, he does a good Sidhu impression.

Lara Dutta and Kunaal Roy Kapur get to play lawyers in some of the most boring, poorly written courtroom scenes seen in a Hindi film in a while. Despite flashes of effective humour in Kapur’s equation with the presiding judge, it is impossible to get past the dreariness of the overall treatment, the lack of content in most of their arguments, the fakeness of the set and Dutta’s excessive makeup. After the depth of the Arshad Warsi-starring legal drama Jolly LLB (2013) such courtroom mediocrity is hard to bear.

A scene in the latter half of Azhar indicates the potential of Azharuddin’s story. Now hated by the fans who once adored him, Azhar is running out of platforms to interact with the public and press. His lawyer forces him to inaugurate a gym to keep up the appearance that life is going on as usual. The owner of the gym though turns out to be an obnoxious fellow who thinks he owns Azhar since he has paid for his time.

This moment harks back to one of the nicest scenes in the recent SRK-starrer Fan in which we saw the boorishness of an industrialist towards a major movie star. Away from the spotlight, the rich and the famous often deal with heartburn, heartbreak and humiliation to get to where they are and stay there. Mohammad Azharuddin’s success and subsequent fall from grace were as public as it can get. What we so desperately needed – and do not get from this film – was to see the details of what went on behind the scenes and why.

Azhar is a superficial look at the life of one of the most enigmatic and intriguing sporting stars this country has ever seen. It is an opportunity lost.