In Kabir Khan's first film, Kabul Express (2006), a journalist and a soldier get into an argument over who is the greatest all-rounder in cricket. The soldier elects Imran Khan; the journalist, under great duress, counters with Kapil Dev. The argument gets so heated that Suhel (John Abraham), the reporter's dispassionate friend, has to break it up. "Cricket is a bloody waste of time,” he grumbles from the front seat. "11 players standing in a field scratching their crotches."
The blasphemy of that statement-which both shocked and tickled me when I first heard it-is greatly undone in Kabir's latest. 83 is the director's ode to cricket, its innate power to move and excite. The sport and its glory are given central attention in this 163-minute film.
It begins with the Indian team convening for the 1983 World Cup in England and Wales-and it ends with them winning it. There are no extended backstories for the individual players. Kabir, playing to the widest gallery possible, does not bother with history lessons. Any context is snuck in sideways, PR Man Singh telling a young Kapil Dev that we won freedom in 1947, but not respect.
The Kapil in this film is played by Ranveer Singh. Excluding the Santa Claus voice ("Shorry, Shorry"), the actor gets a lot right, from decisive bowling action to post-wicket celebratory run. Yet, more than the physical resemblance-which is fine-it's his mix of energy and introspection that ultimately anchors this film.
Outwardly, his Kapil is great fun, both on-field and in the jolly downtime between matches. But we also see the other side to this captain. Told to address his team for the first time, Kapil hesitates, saying seven of them are his seniors. His faltering English-initially just a comic track-becomes an important plot point in the story. The film could have gone with either: master strategist or a nervous lad. Ranveer, though, gives us both.
The fun kicks in with the Indian side struggling in the group matches. They're an odd, funny bunch-giggling around the Queen, pulling pranks on each other. We begin to see them as types: Srikkanth (Jiiva), the chain-smoking charmer; Yashpal Sharma (Jatin Sarna), the resident hothead; Roger Binny (Nishant Dahiya), the brood. Gradually, though, a more complex dynamic emerges. Following a misunderstanding with Kapil, Sunny (Tahir Raj Bhasin) drops out of a match.
He recovers and comes around, as do other players in a fix. It's a fine way to introduce new setbacks without interrupting the narrative flow. But it lacks wit. Why would Balwinder Sandhu (Ammy Virk), facing a personal crisis before an important game, be so simpleminded as to be lectured by Kapil, who is three years his junior?
Perhaps the in-team excitement is necessary. This film, after all, shuns a clear antagonist. The West Indies squad-represented by the formidable duo of Clive Lloyd and Vivian Richards-is portrayed with swagger and verve.
Kapil even talks highly of the defending champs, in a scene that acknowledges the colonial ties between the teams. Yet this sportsmanship isn't reflected off-field. A West Indies supporter is shown as a cruel heckler during a match. And when India beats out England in the semis, it's those sour Brits who start a fight.
Kabir parallels these events with scenes from home. Indians in the early 80s weren't as cricket-crazy as they are today. However, two initial wins-followed by Kapil's smashing at Tunbridge Wells-gets them watching. This is where 83 is at its most wishful.
We're shown soldiers braving enemy shelling to listen to radio commentary, a Muslim family opening the door to riot police. Kabir and his writers (Sanjay Puran Singh, Vasan Bala, Sumit Arora) pump up the emotions to a fever pitch. The song Lehra Do is the cinematic equivalent of a doosra spin. It is bound to get you in the feels, the most battered spot in a Kabir Khan film.
83 isn't the sharpest of sports spectacles. Its insistence on detail and technique is soon replaced by high drama. The delectable dryness of 80s cricket is majorly missed in the film. What's undeniable, though, is the occasional smartness of the writing. Kapil refers to his mongoose bat as his 'talvar', an apt metaphor for the bat's design as well as the battle at hand.
Early on in the film, we see him drop a catch-fans of the 1983 finale can wink at what this means. These devices animate the film better than the soundtrack (or Boman Irani's tension-dissipating commentary). Deepika Padukone's cameo has been teased enough to pack any surprises. There are other cameos, real and fictional, to please fans. Kabir's ALL CAPS filmmaking is at full force in 83.
I watched it with other journalists, and there were teary eyes all around. The moment was best summed up by Mohinder Amarnath (Saqib Saleem) on screen. "Kisi ko bolio mat main ro raha tha," he tells Kapil at one point."Don't tell anyone I was crying."
Cast: Ranveer Singh, Pankaj Tripathi, Saqib Saleem, Tahir Raj Bhasin, Jiiva, Deepika Padukone, Boman Irani
Director: Kabir Khan