83 film review

If you happened to grow up in India, you would know there is no new dimension one can add to India’s landmark Cricket World Cup victory in 1983. It’s a chapter in school syllabuses, popular culture films cite the date emblematic of a period, and the players – especially Kapil Dev – are revered to godly proportions. Politics was always a brewing arena but 83 is set in what must be, perhaps, simpler days to the polarizing times we live in. From the land of yogis, Ayurveda, spices, and all things exotic (including snake charmers), the nation’s global image is tampered by extremism, and the reality is not entirely untrue. It is in the abyss that Kabir Khan tries to sprinkle a legendary story – one that transcends barriers of religion, region, caste, class, and politics.

Cricket, on this date, means more than a religion in India. The contribution of the landmark match that Khan’s film covers are possibly the first trigger that catapulted the sport to the humungous degree of popularity it enjoys today. That way, Bollywood – which is the world’s largest filmmaking industry – owed it a tribute. And 83, which stars Ranveer Singh as Kapil Dev, hits it off the park. Literally and otherwise.

The screenplay (Kabir Khan, Sanjay Puran Singh Chauhan, Vasan Bala) chooses to not waste time with context-setting.  The film opens right when Team India reaches the United Kingdom with their manager (Pankaj Tripathi, who speaks in a smooth Hyderabadi accent). Lifting the classic underdog cinema stereotype, captain Kapil’s squad is mocked by everyone. He has fire in the eyes and a team that is diverse in their backgrounds yet passionate about the game.

If you have seen the original match or its highlight, Kabir Khan’s narrative is a linear, dramatized version of the same with interspersed bits on what happened amongst the team members and their families. The writing is so heavily broad-stroked that every move, every emotion is enunciated – be it a young fan holding a fan or some of the team’s detractors (Brijendra Kala) back in India. However, 83 is successful in lending individuality to most of the cricketers despite the limited solo frames they have. It never delves into any of their psyches – not even Kapil’s. Khan’s story has no time for overt melodrama, we are told. This is notwithstanding the fact that almost every character cries in the film, at some point.

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Due to the film’s highly familiar subject, the character designs are perfunctory. All we know about Kapil Dev are three things: he is a great captain, a good husband, and a very nice man. Other characters, in comparison, get a slightly better scope. If Balwinder Sandhu’s (a flawless Ammy Virk) love life is used to give the film a plausible dramatic effect at one point, Roger Binny’s (Nishant Dahiya, impressive) breakdown upon feeling like an outsider within the team is smartly etched. Even Kapil’s wife Romi (played with immense grace by Deepika Padukone) feels a lot more grounded than the captain himself. Then again, it’s partially about the liability that the story naturally comes with. 83 is not a Kapil Dev biopic.

What I enjoyed a lot were the tiny nuggets that Kabir Khan sprinkles throughout the film. One is Kapil’s inability to converse in English. In a scene aboard a bus, he awkwardly conducts a team meeting. Underscoring the speech is Ek Duje Keliye’s ‘I Don’t Know What You Say’ which K. Srikanth (Jiiva) is enjoying with glee. Clearly, the latter was missing his language (the song stars Tamil superstar Kamal Haasan) and food – which bags a different light moment for itself. Srikanth even gets to deliver a thunderous monologue which, albeit generic, is splendidly enacted by the actor. Another side in the story that might go unacknowledged is the battle of the commentators. Boman Irani does it so well that for a while I forgot he wasn’t a real one in the commentary box.

83 also abounds in meta moments where several reel and real-life characters collide in subsequent frames. If the real Mohinder Amarnath gets to play a crucial character, Kapil Dev shows up as himself in a surreal moment. It might look senseless from a classic cinema syntax, but Khan knows the audience he is catering his film to. We even get a young Sachin Tendulkar watching the tournament. Plus, I couldn’t stop chuckling when the frames alternated (subtly) between Neena Gupta’s (who plays Kapil’s mother) close-ups and the dread that Vivian Richards posed on the crease. Some of these are instances when Kabir Khan’s film would feel like an extended TV commercial – there is a problem statement and straightforward solution – both underlined to the hilt.

Ranveer Singh is unrecognizable (in a good way) as Kapil Dev. He masterfully handles the mannerisms, speech, and stature of the legendary player. While each actor in the squad is very well-cast, Saqib Saleem (as Amarnath) stands out for his affability and quietude. I waited for Tahir Raj Bhasin’s (Gavaskar) part to develop an arc, but it never does. Sunny simply happens to be around in 83 and he does not get a single scene to perform.

The narrative – peppered with a decent soundtrack by Pritam – is full of cultural and a few political tidbits. We see the former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi cleverly employing the world cup as a unifying medium to tackle a law-and-order situation. If Kapil Dev greets Pakistan’s Imran Khan with affection, we are constantly shown an old Muslim gentleman who zealously enjoys every match with cops in a communalism-free atmosphere. Well, well.

The climactic sequence of Kabir Khan’s film is the most hair-raising one to come out of Bollywood, this year. Yet somewhere we wish Kabir Khan had manipulated our emotions a lot less and focused on sharper screenwriting to do the trick. 83 is greatly engaging and the final montages that fill the screen even make us wish for the clichéd ‘good-old days’. What is significantly amiss is the filmmaker’s honesty towards India’s first momentous achievement post-independence in 1947. There is boundless joy behind 83’s familiar storyline and way fewer nuances.

Rating: ★★★ 1/2

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