How Kabir Khan, Ranveer Singh, and team 83 take me back to when I witnessed India's maiden cricket World Cup victory
This script had been penned on lush English grass over a few dramatic weeks in the summer of 1983, when director Kabir Khan and I were both an impressionable 15.
The ball went soaring up into the air, and hung there for an impossibly long time. For those few seconds, a billion hearts paused their pumping. Then, sprinting into the frame seemingly from nowhere to take Vivian Richards’ catch, came the man who would change the future of Indian cricket — Kapil Dev.
No writer could have imagined a more dramatic start to a movie, even if a million-dollar purse had been on offer. In the case of 83, that had not been necessary.
It was with trepidation that I had ventured into a multiplex to watch 83. While that will undoubtedly seem inexplicable to the millions who had been waiting for the film's release for the past couple of years, it will likely not surprise the few thousand fortunate enough to have been glued to our television sets on 25 June, 1983. We had all felt like we played our own small part in history, even from a few thousand miles away. Sharing that sacred moment through a celluloid dramatisation, with a generation that had not yet been conceived, had always seemed like sacrilege.
But when I walked out of that hall, I could not stop smiling. For 197 dramatic and emotion-inducing minutes, Khan had taken us both back to our innocent wide-eyed selves, hopes for a wonderful future swelling our teenage hearts.
But first, back to that catch.
Just over three years ago, I had flown down to Delhi to meet Kapil Dev. I was writing Wizards: The Story of Indian Spin Bowling, and besides interviewing him for the book to get his views and stories on Indian spinners, I also wanted him to write the foreword for the book. He had graciously agreed to both.
Over the course of the hours we spent together, it was but natural that we would discuss 1983, and that catch. "I was lucky, the ball stuck in my hands," had been the typical self-effacing reply to my comment that this was the moment that scripted the future trajectory of Indian cricket. That modesty defines the man, and it is a trait the movie captures to perfection.
Another comment that Dev made that day came back to me yesterday as I watched Indira Gandhi in 83 ask that the semi-final and final be televised live across India.
I have always believed that the dramatic visuals of the Indian captain holding aloft the World Cup on the Lord’s balcony, was the inflexion point for India’s dominance of world cricket. It was so powerful because it made us believe in ourselves. In many ways, it defined the New India.
While agreeing with its impact, Dev had wistfully added, "Live television is very powerful. Imagine where Indian badminton would have been today, if Prakash Padukone lifting the All England trophy in 1980 had been televised live."
It is this man, with the gift of great vision to accompany his once-in-a-generation talent, that Ranveer Singh so adroitly plays out in 83.
It is one thing to play the lead role in a biopic of a sporting hero. Many have done a passable job. It is quite another to portray a living legend acting out an achievement that has entered the folklore of a nation of 1.4 billion people.
Shah Rukh Khan did a magnificent job in Chak De! India. It was a performance that arguably brought hockey back into focus as India’s national sport, and put the women’s game into the public conscience. But SRK, for all his talent and charisma, had relatively small shoes to fill, playing his part unburdened by expectations, away from the limelight. Singh had no such luxury.
From the day the movie was announced, the sceptics have been prowling at the gates. Having seen the movie, one can safely advise them to return to the closets they came from. Ranveer Singh as Kapil Dev has played the role of his life. From bowling action to facial expression, from the intensity to mannerisms, he captures the essence of the man.
But 83 is not just about Singh. Pankaj Tripathi as PR Man Singh, the team manager, plays a supporting role that, if anything, lifts Singh’s performance. Yes, his actions are dramatised, dialogues a bit cliched, but then this is a film, not a documentary, and we know that when we walk into that hall.
What it is not, is fictionalised, and that is where Kabir scores over every other biopic maker in India. He blurs the lines just enough between a biopic and a documentary to slake one’s emotional thirst and whet the appetite at the same time.
An example is a quasi Hichkockian ploy. Alfred Hitchcock loved cameo appearances in his own movies. In 83, the director goes one better. He gets Mohinder Amarnath to play his father Lala. The sight of Lala watching the final with friends and family, sometimes smiling in quiet pride at his son’s on-field successes, and in one dramatic moment, throwing his shoe at the television screen in disgust, is a delightful one. For those who knew Lala, that would be completely in character with the emotional man who got sent back from the 1936 tour of England for losing his temper with captain Vizzy.
And then there is the cricket. It was a relatively simple task for Jacques Taylor to look and act like a gum-chewing Vivian Richards. What raised the bar was being able to copy his hand and foot movements, his strokes and his follow through. I grew up on Viv Richards. I watched him play his debut series in India in 1974-75. Taylor’s batting had me convinced I was watching Richards. And that is a remarkable achievement.
Taylor was, however, far from being the only one. Chirag Patil does a fantastic job on the field as his father Sandeep. For those of us who were fortunate enough to watch him bat through his career, Sandeep Patil’s demolition of Bob Willis will remain a treasured memory.
One more actor who deserves mention in relation to his cricket is Jatin Sarna as the late Yashpal Sharma. Other than Dev, Roger Binny, and Amarnath, if there is one man India owes the 1983 World Cup victory to, it would be Sharma. It warmed the cockles of my heart to see Sarna carrying out that role (particularly on the field) with aplomb. His strokes had Yashpal stamped all over them.
It would be remiss on my part not to mention the greatest innings ever played in limited overs cricket. If there is one unattainable bucket list item on the list of every cricket lover in the nation, myself included, it is watching a replay of Dev’s 175 not out at Tunbridge Wells against Zimbabwe. The BBC was on strike, and chose not to send any of its available television crews to this 'clash of the minnows.'
I have heard veteran journalist Ayaz Memon talk about walking into the ground late because he had not had the money to spend on a fast train from London. He managed, however, to make it in time for Dev's innings. I have heard Memon’s version, read accounts of that match from the few other journalists present, and the recollections of a few spectators lucky enough to be at the ground that day. But watching Kabir’s recreated version filled my heart with joy and pride in equal measure, never more so than the moment when a straight six from Dev shatters the change room window and shakes his teammates out of their stupor. They walk out on the balcony to watch a miracle unfold. Singh, as Dev, looks up at them and smiles in quiet satisfaction.
I had lamented to Dev when I met him that his Tunbridge Wells innings was not on film. He smiled, and softly quipped: "Perhaps it was for the best. It remains an iconic event because people can only imagine it. There is a magic in that, more powerful than actually watching it." Watching the innings in 83 will, I suspect, only help us imagine it a bit better.
Suffice to say that while the list of sports themed films that I would watch twice was a very short one — Invictus, Chariots of Fire, and Chak De! India. Last night, I added 83 to it.
83 is playing in cinemas.
Anindya Dutta is a sports columnist and author of six bestselling books, including Wizards: The Story of Indian Spin Bowling and Advantage India: The Story of Indian Tennis. He tweets @cric_writer.
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