Thursday, December 30, 2021

Lords for a day, Masters forever: Thoughts on 83 (the film) and beyond

June 25, 1983.  I was one year and 363 days old.  I had absolutely no clue whether my immediate family had watched the seminal event that was unfolding thousands of miles away at the Lord's cricket ground (in London).  As the entire cricketing world doubted the prospects of an Indian win over the mighty West Indies, 11 Indians, led by a man whose self-doubt was as non-existent as his fear, caused the upset of all upsets.  India won the world cup.  And the nation and the sport were never the same again.

It was only in 1991 that I started following cricket.  It is safe to say that in the last thirty years, my fanaticism and love for the sport has only increased in magnitude.  More importantly (at least to me), I consider myself a student of the history of Indian cricket.  No, I don’t have any academic credentials to show for it.  But I have read reams and reams of literature on Indian cricket, its history and its evolution as well as watched every video cassette, DVD and youtube video that I could possibly access.  And talking of evolution, the 1983 world cup is, without a doubt, the tournament that marked a significant turning point in Indian cricket history.  A nation that had been brought up on Test cricket since the third decade of the century, suddenly woke up to the excitement, the unpredictability, and the instant gratifications of the 50-over version of the game. (That T20 is the flavor du jour of cricket now merits a separate piece!)

One of the chief pleasures – actually, make that two – of watching Kabir Khan’s 83 is the painstaking recreation of the high points of all of India’s games.  I said “two” because on the one hand, we have several moments that have been captured in highlights packages over the years.  These have been recreated on screen with an astounding attention to detail both on the cricketing front as well as on the casting front.  But more importantly, we get to see on screen moments that are not available in the form of highlights.  The first group match versus the West Indies, Srikkanth's square drive in the final, and most memorably, Kapil Dev’s 175* at Turnbridge Wells.  The production values are stupendous.  Anyone familiar with the Lord’s ground (the venue for the final) will know that the stadium has evolved considerably in the past 38 years.  Yet we are transported to that era.  The grounds where games take place, the buses that the players travel in, the hotels they are put up in, all appear incredibly authentic on screen. 

If the production design is a sturdy pillar that holds the film aloft, the superbly cast team of actors are the flying buttresses.  If you observe carefully, the actors don’t just mimic the body language and manner of speaking of the real-life cricketers.  Instead, they impressively embody the spirit and character of the players.  Among the actors with considerable screen time, Ranveer Singh (playing Kapil Dev) and Jiiva (Krishnamachari Srikkanth) don’t just employ tics and impressions to bring their roles to life.  They truly internalize the essence of the players, be it Kapil’s fierce determination or Srikkanth’s charming insouciance. 

Two other actors who deserve a special shout-out are Tahir Raj Bhasin (Sunil Gavaskar) and Pankaj Tripathi (manager PR Man Singh).  Tahir brings to life the buttoned-up, polished Gavaskar.  Watch him in the scene where he clarifies that Yashpal Sharma meant, “acidity” when he actually said, “STD!”  Tahir does not indulge in any tomfoolery.  He just clarifies and gets on with his routine.  He is even better in the restaurant scene with the manager.  He is smarting from a perceived insult, chooses to not talk about it and acknowledges the manager’s efforts to pacify him.  But at the end of the conversation, he politely but firmly makes the point that he will not play the next game.  And Pankaj Tripathi is wonderful as the avuncular manager who has to deal with an eclectic bunch of characters and extend support to his captain.  His reaction to an airport official asking for Viv Richards’ autograph is priceless.

83 is an ambitious film not just in terms of size and scale (which it certainly is).  It also is ambitious in ensuring that despite the minutest of cricketing details being brought forth on screen, that the human angle is not sacrificed.  Of course, not every member of the squad gets a fully fleshed character or an arc but there are several little vignettes that give us glimpses into the human side of this team.  Sunil Valson realizing, while stretching, that he is not going to be selected for a game, is a fine example of how Kabir Khan and his team of writers imbue the characters with genuine emotion, some positive, others not so, but every one of them unfailingly real.

The surge of genuine emotion that I felt projected onto me from the film is, above all the technical mastery, the reason why this movie is and will be very special to me.  What I had read about in books and articles and had watched in highlights and interviews, was crystallized and neatly tied with a bow and presented to me as a 2-hour 40-minute package.  This gift of a film served as yet another reminder of why I truly love this sport and the players that inhabit it.  Yes, I was only two years old when the events of the film happened in real life.  But by the same token, my generation was born several decades after India gained independence.  Do we not feel an outpouring of patriotism and love for our country when we read about Mahatma Gandhi?  History can be relived vicariously through not only written literature but also art forms like cinema.  As a result, it is only natural that as we see a captain hold the world cup trophy aloft on screen, that our own cup of joy brims over.

Saturday, December 18, 2021

Anbodu Kamal Daasan Naan Ezhudhum... - A letter to Rajnikanth

Dear Rajni Sir,

Wish you a belated happy birthday!  I hope that you are recovering well from your recent health issues and that you have a great day and year ahead.  I watched a 30-second video clip today on Twitter.  It is the video of you wishing a girl called Sowmya whom I don’t know.  But your wish was so lovely, so heartwarming that I felt the need to send positive vibes to someone who seems to be going through a health issue.  As always, there was an incredible amount of genuineness in your voice.  The way you said, “kanna” was, as always, a delight to hear.  What was truly poignant to me was the apologetic way you explained why you couldn’t see her in person.  That you were feeling a little under the weather yourself.  There is a reason why your fans adore and worship you.  All that adulation is fully deserved, Sir.

So, am I a Rajni fan or a Kamal fan?  I don’t think you will mind at all, given your admiration for your friend of 46 years.  Kamal Haasan was and continues to be my biggest influence from the world of films.  As an actor, writer and director, he has been a huge reason why I admire and analyze films more than just enjoying and being entertained by them.  How do I see you?  I see you Sir, as a splendid actor who chose to be a shining star.  I am that film buff who was delighted by your performance in the scene in "Kabaali" where you saw Radhika Apte after a long separation.  Your expression of ecstasy in that scene, the way you held her lovingly were all fabulous.  In “Kaala”, the way you tried to pacify your wife in the car (just before she got killed) was a lovely moment.  I thoroughly enjoyed your villainous act as Chitti in “Endhiran”, though I didn’t think that you were utilized that well in the sequel.

The 90s was a decade where the differing paths that you and Kamal had taken were strikingly obvious.  While Kamal acted in films such as “Guna”, “Thevar Magan”, “Mahanadhi” and “Kuruthi Punal” (while alternating with his comedies), your superstardom was established in films such as “Annamalai”, “Baasha” and “Padayappa.”  I enjoyed your performance in all those films, especially “Baasha.”  That was a ‘commercial’ film in which your acting had the kind of raw power that you had also shown in “Thalapathi.”  But in films such as “Muthu” and “Arunachalam” the star obscured the actor in you.  And I felt this way about your later films too.  I would always enjoy an expression here, a nuanced dialogue delivery there.  But the pitch of your performances and the filmmaking style in those films meant that we admirers of your acting had to settle for the occasional glimpse that would make us wistful about the actor of the past.  Did I think that you became a lazy actor?  Not really.  You just seemed keener on appealing to your fanatics’ wishes than the film connoisseur’s tastes. (I shall hasten to add that the two groups are not mutually exclusive.  It’s more about which part of our film brain do we turn on?)

There are three performances in two films that I consider to be your finest work.  The films were,  unsurprisingly, directed by the man whom you named as your favorite director when your guru K Balachander asked you.  Mahendran.  What a magnificent partnership the two of you had.  Without bemoaning the small quantity of films you collaborated on, we are better off celebrating them for their indelible impact.  As Kaali in “Mullum Malarum” and as Johnny and Vidyasagar in “Johnny”, you were astounding.  The nuance of your acting was matched by the sharpness of the writing and the deftness of the filmmaking.  In “Mullum Malarum”, the way you apologized to Shoba is impactful till this day.  The way you uttered, “valichutha ma” twice with different modulations was sublime.  Ditto for the change in your body language in the scene where Sarat Babu (aka “Law Point!”) visits your house.  The erect posture said all that there was to be said about the pride of the character.  I never tire of waxing eloquent on the proposal scene in “Johnny” either.  As you had apparently shared with Mahendran, it was Sridevi’s scene, yes.  But it would just not have worked as well had you not played such a delightful foil.  The “pada padaa-nu pesiteengaLe” line was marvelously delivered by you.  In stark contrast was how you, as Vidyasagar, proposed to the character played by Deepa.  The hurt in your eyes when she uses the word “barber” in a disparaging manner was understated yet supremely effective.  There were films such as “16 Vayathinile” and “AvargaL” where you had an arresting screen presence as the antagonist.  There were other films such as “Aarilirundhu Arupathu Varai” where you shone brightly as an actor.  But these two films with Mahendran are what I will hold dear to me as I think of your work.

One facet of your onscreen persona that I have much respect for is the space that you give to your fellow actors.  Be it villains like the great Raghuvaran, heroines like Ramya Krishnan (in that career-changing turn of hers as Neelambari) or comedians like Janakaraj, Coundamani or Senthil, you have always given your fellow actors the opportunity to shine.  I once watched an interview with Vadivukkarasi where she mentioned that you led an applause after the panchayat scene that left her misty-eyed.  I am sure that there are many more gestures such as that that have left your cast and crew overjoyed.  I doff my hat off to you Sir, for exhibiting more and more humility as you achieved more and more success.  It is a mix that I am sure that you know is as rare as it is deserving of approbation. 

As I come to the end of this letter, let me, once again, wish you a blessed year ahead.  I hope that in your next few films, you give us something that will make us sit up and take notice, once again, of the actor in you.  With the increasingly rousing reception that film goers, your fans included, have been giving to the fresh, well-executed ideas of the new-age filmmakers, I hope that you derive the confidence to go beyond some of the comfort zones in which your superstardom have confined you.  The sounds of your stardom-imposed shackles being broken will be among the sweetest music to your admirers.

Thank you for patiently reading this, Sir.

With much respect,