In defense of 83: Why Kabir Khan's cricket drama is as pan-India a film as there can be one
What is a 'pan-Indian' film? Full of VFX and action? In that case, yes 83 did not have tacky slow-mo sequences or bodies getting pummeled by the hero, but the action on the field was poetry and the world-building authentic.
Trade analysts, comparing the box office run of Sukumar's
Telugu pan-India film Pushpa: The Rise to that of Kabir Khan's period cricket drama 83, claim the latter has gotten outperformed because it is not a 'pan-Indian' film.
"We don't make 'em anymore," they claim, adding that the void left by Hindi cinema of creating 'pan-Indian' films is being filled by the South Indian film industries, particularly the Telugu film industry. SS Rajamouli's Baahubali: The Beginning (2015) was the one that managed to get the foot in the door. And now, there's no looking back.
The chain of events has actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise since it challenges the monopolisation of Hindi cinema in propagating their idea of India through the soft power of cinema. It helped decentralise the film capital of India from Mumbai to Hyderabad and Chennai among other prominent South Indian cities.
But those who claim 83 did not work because it's not a pan-Indian film need to define what the parameters of a 'pan-Indian film' really are. And if that is the panacea to the hurdles posed by the pandemic in visiting cinema halls then how have other tentpole films, that are positioning themselves as 'pan-India' products, moved their release dates after the underwhelming box office performance of 83?
These films include the ones of those who pioneered the pan-India phenomenon. Rajamouli's RRR, starring Ram Charan and Jr NTR, and Baahubali star Prabhas's Radhe Shyam were scheduled to release a week apart on 7 and 14 January but they chose to get delayed indefinitely because of the theatre shutdowns and local restrictions induced by the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. Even Akshay Kumar, the poster boy of pop [pan-India] patriotism, had to push his historical film Prithviraj from Republic Day.
Since I'm not a trade expert, I would rather not get into the nitty gritties of box office [like how the numbers of Pushpa Hindi dub have primarily come from Maharashtra and Gujarat, which makes it more of a two-state or concentrated release than a 'pan-India' one]. My main contention is to argue that 83 is very much a pan-India film.
What is a pan-India film? Does one become one only by proclaiming to be one? Is it determined by the number of screens and languages one is released in? In that case, 83 was one of the biggest of the year with 3,741 screens across India, and also evenly spread. Malayalam superstar Prithviraj Sukumaran was the film's distributor in Kerala, and Kannada megastar Sudeep attached the promotional material of his 'pan-Indian' film Vikrant Rona with 83. The teaser was unveiled at Sathyam Cinemas, Chennai, with Kamal Haasan as the chief guest. He even waxed eloquent about the film on Twitter, and so did fellow Tamil icon Rajinikanth.
Is a pan-India film then defined by its diverse star cast? In that case, Baahubali or for that matter, Yash's KGF: Chapter 1, had no faces that were more popular in north Indian than south. The cross-pollination only started with the follow-ups, Prabhas' Saaho and KGF: Chapter 2, where either the leading lady or villains or both were plucked from the Hindi film industry. Interestingly, every actress opposite Prabhas in all his upcoming films, is from North — Pooja Hegde (Radhe Shyam), Kriti Sanon (Adipurush), and Project K (Deepika Padukone).
Too bad that Kabir Khan and casting director Mukesh Chhabra chose authenticity over varnishing strategically located stardom in 83. Jiiva, as opposed to 'pan-India' stars like Allu Arjun or Vijay Devarakonda, was zeroed in to play Srikanth. Other pan-India stars like Mahesh Babu and Ram Charan could have easily been passed off as Madan Lal and Balvinder Sandhu. But they chose to finalise Punjabi actor-singers Ammy Virk and Harrdy Sandhu. Of course, they had a huge star in Ranveer Singh to headline the project but it's a pity, by 'pan-India' logic, that he disappeared under the skin of his character Kapil Dev, just like the rest of his co-stars.
Is action and VFX the dominant criteria of a pan-Indian film? In that case, yes 83 did not have tacky slow-mo sequences or bodies getting pummeled by the hero, but the action on the field was poetry.
The cricket was so well choreographed that it landed the sweet spot between buffs and non-enthusiasts, for most part. It was propelled by Aseem Mishra's skillful cinematography (his wide and close-up shots struck the right balance between scale and emotion), Nitin Baid's economical editing (slow motion was strictly reserved for the big moments), and Julius Packiam's pulsating background score and Pritam's rousing climactic anthem, 'Lehra Do.' As far as VFX is concerned, Kabir Khan decided against an overdose because he chose to go the documentary way. He preferred authenticity to trade diktats. That authenticity has infiltrated all the actors, and in turn, translated on screen.
When nothing makes the cut as deep as they want it to be, trade experts regard 'mass entertainment' as the cornerstone of a 'pan-Indian' film. Hmmm. The easy counter to that is cricket. Cricket is often dismissed it as a game of the elite, but when has it ever not enthralled, enraged, and energised the masses?
Finally, the trump card of a pan-Indian film, that is often played under the table, is pop patriotism. Let's admit, there's enough of that in 83. But for good reason. The 1983 World Cup victory of the Indian cricket team was an entire nation's victory in every sense. Yes, there's no locker room pep talk about 'Humara Hindustan' by Kapil Dev to his teammates. Because until then, the idea of India on a sports field was not as pronounced.
The 1983 win was to cricket what the Great Rebellion of 1857 was to India's freedom movement. By encapsulating that unifying and reassuring spirit accurately, 83 proves nothing gets more pan-India than that.
83 is playing in cinemas.
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