83 Review: Compelling retelling of India’s finest moment

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83 Review: Compelling retelling of India’s finest moment

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

“Pranab Mukherjee ke kutte ne Vajpayee ko kaat liya.”

This historical retort is the first dialogue of 83 – and a harbinger of the film’s tongue-in-cheek tone. Two government clerks are discussing news, and move on to joke about India’s chances at the World Cup while handing over kits to the Indian Team Manager PR Man Singh (Pankaj Tripathi). You realise how different the film’s setting is compared to the current times.

The film does not miss any opportunity to highlight where the young nation once stood on the cricketing map. This was a time when India’s sole victory in the World Cups had been against East Africa which, as the film describes, was not even a country and just a group of Gujjus who decided to turn up in whites. Because a win was so out of the question, Man Singh had booked return tickets for a week before the final match!

83 then narrates how a rag-tag team brought pride to a country desperately in need of it. It captures almost all the fabled moments from the win – Kapil Dev’s world record 175 against Zimbabwe in an untelevised do-or-die match, the misunderstandings between erstwhile captain Gavaskar and Kapil, Balwinder Singh Sandhu’s improbable in-swinger to oust ace opener Gordon Greenidge in the final. We already know how this story is going to end.

83 narrates how a rag-tag team brought pride to a country desperately in need of it. It captures almost all the fabled moments from the win.

What then makes this telling a worthy experience is the heartfelt anecdotes which humanize each of the team members and how cricket intertwined with India’s destiny. So while Kapil Dev (Ranveer Singh) learns to wash clothes because he cannot afford laundry in England, back home Indira Gandhi reads the news of a riot and decides to make the World Cup the focus of the nation’s gaze by televising it widely. It is this juxtaposition of the cricketers’ internal struggles and a nation’s aspirations that makes 83 a compelling watch.

The film is marked by well-executed subplots and minor conflicts which tie an ordinary Indian’s story to the tournament – an Indian couple bartending in a British pub who find it difficult to express their joy at India’s semi-final victory over England, a working class Sikh whose appreciation for the Indian team varies with its fortunes, a Muslim family which is frightened by knocks at their door in the aftermath of a riot, only to find few policemen enquiring about the match. We even have an Indian Army regiment, unable to hear radio amidst constant shelling, receive a friendly call from their Pakistani counterpart that they will cease firing during the final.

What makes this telling a worthy experience is the heartfelt anecdotes which humanize each of the team members and how cricket intertwined with India’s destiny.

All of these minor characters add nuance to the storytelling and come together to create a cathartic moment at the end – the kind an epic story deserves. The writing team – Kabir Khan, Sanjay Puran Singh Chauhan and Vasan Bala – thus layer the emotional journeys of the characters with the well-researched socio-political times. Even little Sachin is present! Ranveer Singh looks like a Kapil Dev reincarnation, and delivers an understated performance. The star never outshines the film. This creates space for meaty cameos by the supporting cast, and almost each of the team members gets a moment for themselves. A special mention for Jiiva who brings to life the humorous antics of Kris Srikkanth, and Pankaj Tripathi whose Hyderabadi accent will make you crave dum biryani. The female leads playing the cricketers’ wives and fiances, including Deepika Padukone, only enter in the 2nd half, and remain mute spectators for most of the time – literally and narratively. Alas.

Kabir’s history as a documentarian helps in merging reality and fiction. During a sequence introducing each of the hallowed West Indies pacers, the film cuts to actual footage of them sending batsmen through hell. The visual impact is such that Srikkanth says “Hum log cricket match dekhne aaye hain, ya horror film?” There’s ample use of archival photos, and the end credits include anecdotal interviews. the legendary Malcolm Marshall, Mohinder Amarnath not only plays his father Lala Amarnath, but also shares wisdom with his own younger self played by Saqib Saleem.

Ranveer Singh looks like a Kapil Dev reincarnation, and delivers an understated performance. The star never outshines the film. This creates space for meaty cameos by the supporting cast, and almost each of the team members gets a moment for themselves.

The authenticity of the film aside Pritam’s score can become overbearing.The film chooses to showcase each match in detail, so a number of cricketing moments start seeming mundane and the musical efforts to accentuate emotions feel more and more forceful. To someone not inherently nostalgic about a time when this victory was the biggest source of pride for an Indian cricket fan, the film’s celebration of every small win can feel like an overdose.

But as Carson McCullers once put it, “We are homesick most for the places we have never known.” 83 espoused a brand of nationalism that is neither overstated nor thumped at a pitch you are forced to hear. After a difficult match, Roger Binny (Nishant Dahiya) questions the point of remembering the national anthem, when it does not make your heart swell. Kapil Dev hugs Imran Khan without thinking twice. The team’s success mantra becomes Kapil’s broken words “Taste success once, tongue want more” and so we hope the film’s humility rubs off on today’s generation as well.

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