Movie Review – 83 – India’s Best Cricket Hour Gets the Cinematic Treatment


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It has been almost 40 years since India first won the World Cup. It must sound like ancient history to the fans who have grown up this century, who have been spoiled by three world titles and the rise of a team that not only wins but dominates abroad. For those viewers, watch the movie 83 it’s probably like looking into a weird parallel universe, where no one is giving their camp in hell a chance.

I was born shortly after India won the World Cup, so in a way it’s also a chapter of history for me, like studying the Mauryas or the Mughals. Whenever a World Cup comes up, I go back to India’s first title, looking for scorecards and player reports from the event, often as part of my job at ESPNcricinfo. If you ask me what I thought about it, I would probably say something like: India’s victory changed the course of the game itself. Perhaps not entirely incorrect, but certainly a reductive opinion.

Yet, watching the movie, which tells India’s eight matches at the World Cup, it struck me: this trip was so incredible, it could easily have been imagined by a screenwriter passionate about great drama. Even if you ignore all the times India’s underdog status is waved in your face like a giant flag and underlined with inspiring music, it’s hard not to wonder: how did they do it?
India, whose only World Cup victory so far had come against a tinkered East African team in 1975, was grouped together with Australia, world champions from the West Indies and Zimbabwe, in the tournament, which was to face each team twice before the semi-finals. They opened with an unexpected victory against the West Indies and beat Zimbabwe, but were beaten by Australia and (literally) bloodied by the West Indies. Under pressure to win their fifth game, again against Zimbabwe (a “do and die” like Kapil Dev, played by Ranveer Singh, said in the film), they slipped to 17 for 5 before … if Ron Howard heard this pitch, there I would already dream of another Oscar.

When filmmakers adapt books, like the Wheel of time series, or the Lord of the Rings, or those of Harry Potter, they take and transform what has until then only resided in the imagination of the fans. Recreating a real event, especially an event as popular as a sports tournament, has to be trickier. The narrative will always be a visually paler version of the original, and there is no gain as the result is already known – often by more people than those who have read a book, in the case of a novel with -adaptations to the screen.

While a movie like Lagaan, who has similar themes against them, could get away with an amateur-looking cricket as its Indian protagonists are supposed to be novices and their English opponents are not pros either, the suspension of disbelief is more difficult to 83. It’s a little shocking to see a pitcher complete his action, the ball land on the field, then pass the batter in three separate strokes. Longer-range shots are more watchable than close-ups, but at no point can you believe you’re watching a cricket match as opposed to a movie.

The filmmakers probably understood that presenting an elite level of the game would be beyond them. It feels like they instead chose to use cricket as a tool to tell a classic underdog story, focusing more on the characters’ little moments than the big action.

If you’ve watched YouTube videos from various 1983 team meetings over the years, you’ll be familiar with many of those little moments we see in the movie: Kapil’s team meetings in his idiosyncratic English (” Cheeka, you hit; Sunny, you beat; Yashpal, you are a lion; Kiri, you must keep “). Kris Srikkanth explained how many of them saw the World Cup as just a stopover on their way to their New York vacation. Sandeep Patil’s role as the team’s entertainment director – “the night captain”. (In a nice touch, Patil’s son, Chirag, plays his father in the film, and Mali Marshall is cast for his father, Malcolm.)

Players disagree with the authenticity of each other’s memories in these videos, but over time many of the stories solidified into narratives – like Srikkanth saying all players thought Kapil was crazy to suggest that India could win the World Cup, and how that has shown you the depth of its self-confidence. And now, with the film, those memories will likely reach the level of myth, where many fans will find it hard to believe it could have happened otherwise.

Among the most legendary milestones before the victory, Kapil’s 175 did not come out at Tunbridge Wells, made all the more captivating here as it lies largely in the imagination of fans – the BBC has not broadcast the match *. The dashboard itself tells a pretty amazing story. India went from 9 to 4, when Kapil came in, to 17 for 5 and 78 for 7, before moving to 266 to 8. The script chooses to ignore the fact that Zimbabwe, playing their first FIFA Cup. world, would have been considered underdogs in this contest, focusing instead on the emotions of those who experience Kapil’s rounds.

Could the re-enactment replace parts of what you brought up from the 175s in your mind? Did Potter fans feel the same when they first saw Daniel Radcliffe in the role? And would that be aggravating?

I thought it would, but even though I feared being emotionally manipulated by the histrionics, I had a fleeting sensation of what Kapil’s sleeves would have meant to those who watched him that day at the soil, and I liked it. If even a sophomore imitation could move me all these years later, how special the original had to be.

It was the looks inside the locker room, the camaraderie between the players, that delighted both the cricketer fan and the movie buff in me. The charming detail of PR team director Man Singh, blocked by the great Ravi Shastri, leaning to his left to be visible in the team photo, and the camera cutting off the actual photo. Yashpal Sharma and Kirti Azad panic when Lala Amarnath calls the phone looking for her son, Jimmy. Kapil gets angry at his wife (played by Deepika Padukone) for asking for additional tickets to the final for their acquaintances, but kindly nods to Sunil Gavaskar’s request for the same.

I began to imagine listening to such anecdotes from today’s cricketers – jokes between Rohit Sharma and Rishabh Pant; Mohammed Siraj clowning in the locker room and Jasprit Bumrah secretly feeling jealous of all the attention he receives; Cheteshwar Pujara claiming he dreams of cricket when he really does dream of having lunch. Which obviously made me wonder: what modern Indian series would translate well into a movie? Desert storm in Sharjah? The Australia 2000-01 series? The 2007 T20 World Cup? It may be a recency bias, but none of these seem to offer emotional highs and lows like the 2020-21 Australia tour does – hostile surroundings, countless woes, bruised protagonists but not beaten and a culminating will – they – not – they end. This will be my elevator pitch, if anyone is interested. Job title: Gabba Mere Rabba.

How closely does a sports film have to be linked to the actual event to appeal to you? What sort of cinematic license are you willing to give to the filmmakers? Like life, sport can often be haphazard and messy as it unfolds and then arranged by us into clever little stories that make sense. 83 is like that, a cute little story of no-hopers triumphing through thick and thin – fiction and reality even blend in the minds of those who lived it. It doesn’t take away from what Kapil and Co achieved, but it is more difficult to tell the story in any other way.

*December 28, 2021, 7:32 GMT: An earlier version of the article indicated that no TV footage from the match existed due to a strike at the BBC. This has been fixed

Nishi Narayanan is Associate Editor at ESPNcricinfo

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