'Torbaaz' movie review: Sappy saviour drama strays off the pitch
Sanjay Dutt teaches cricket to a team of refugee camp kids in Girish Malik’s obtuse drama.
One of the first things we see in Torbaaz is children playing a game of football. It reminded me of Afghan Girls Can Kick, a 2008 documentary about the first female soccer team of Afghanistan, as they rise over poverty and oppression to play their first derby match.
Girish Malik's film (out on Netflix) wants to tell a similar story, but brings an outsider’s perspective to its subject matter: young kids turning to sport in a specific context and time.
Naseer (Sanjay Dutt) returns to Kabul several years after his wife and son were killed in a bombing incident. Reluctantly, he helps Ayesha (Nargis Fakhri) run an orphanage his late wife had set up. A visit to a nearby refugee camp brings on a change of heart: instead of giving up on the kids growing up under the Taliban’s grip, he wants to introduce them to cricket, hoping it will nudge them to a better future.
While Naseer’s proposal is well-intentioned, the same cannot be said about his plans. Early on in the film, he stages a friendly match inside the camp.
The poor children look on as he passes around expensive gear: bats, helmets, protective pads. It’s a bit shameful that these kids are seduced not by the joy of play, as one would like to think, but by their natural yearning for stuff they can never have.
Cricket is a rich man’s sport - this scene seems to confirm - and Naseer’s kindness an act of charity. As word spreads around the camp, more and more kids join in. But before they can play their first match, a mutiny breaks out. Baaz, an orphaned ‘Talib’ kid from Pakistan, won’t gel with the local Afghans.
There’s a bit of in-fighting too: the Pashtun kids are dismissive of the Hazaras, even if Naseer insists they should all play together. These sequences reveal the anger and angst driving these boys apart, though I suspect they were simply written to include Lagaan-style frictions into the plot. This is confirmed when Naseer challenges the coach of a Kabul cricket academy to a match. The children, naturally, are forced to let go of their differences and band together.
But their hope for a brighter future goes beyond the pitch. The Taliban, operating from the hills of Kandahar, is waging war against NATO and the Afghan army. Their leader (played by Rahul Dev, militant supreme of Hindi cinema), recruits refugee camp kids for suicide missions. Will he bear down on Naseer’s little team, or will cricket save the day? The answer, I’m afraid, is revealed in one disturbing scene, in which a child dresses up as a terrorist while a Sachin Tendulkar poster gawks disapprovingly from the wall. As a former military doctor in Kabul, Sanjay blends in with the surroundings.
His ordinary Hindi doesn’t stick out in a film full of assorted accents ("Khushamdeed…" Ayesha greets him at the airport. "Long time no see") Visually, Torbaaz fares better than other Bollywood movies set in the region, contrasting scorched landscapes with lush valleys and hills.
But the film is let down by its harsh 'cricket-vs- terrorism' dynamic, and the insistence on Naseer playing saviour to the kids. When Baaz and his boys disobey him in one scene, I couldn’t help but crack a smile. It’s your team, coach, but it’s their field.