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Kabir Khan on the spirit of 83

Director Kabir Khan on researching, casting and capturing the emotions of the weeks leading up to India’s 1983 World Cup victory

Kabir Khan and the ‘83’ cast

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It was a story waiting to be made. Thirty-eight years after India’s historic World Cup victory at Lord’s, director Kabir Khan has led a team of actors and cricketers back in time to recreate that June of 1983.

Going into the tournament, captain Kapil Dev was leading a team described as the underdogs. But they came out winners. For Khan, the challenge was to encapsulate the emotions of those weeks while making an entertaining and engaging film. The research, conducted over two years, required trawling through the Lord’s archives, interviewing players, watching filmed footage and YouTube videos. Unlimited access to members of the 1983 team was a gold mine.

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Khan describes the film, to be released in cinemas on 24 December, as his most “extensive, expansive, exhaustive research project”. The script demanded precise recreation of the minutest details. “The personal stories of the players were the backbone but to make a coherent screenplay you need much more than anecdotes. It was a historical event but the politics around the event, the social and economic backdrop against which this tournament was being played, in England and in India, were also important,” he says.

It’s well known that the crucial 18 June match against Zimbabwe where Kapil Dev scored 175 runs, coming in at 17 for 5 and turning India’s fortunes around in the tournament, was not televised. Dev himself recalls that innings but does not rue the lack of visual archival reference to it. “People talk about that innings because they have not seen it,” he said. “That innings is recorded in my brain’s computer, so that’s good. It’s bad for those who missed it.” It’s an important chapter in the film, one Khan knew he had to craft with care. “I went to Tunbridge Wells and met people from the county and from the local cricket clubs who gave me details of what was happening in the stands, what people were thinking, etc.”

The makers even convinced Lord’s Cricket Ground to permit shooting on the grounds. “We needed access to everything from the grounds to the Pavilion, the Long Room, members’ pavilion and all the material in the Lord’s library and archives. I spoke to the few Indian journalists who went to the UK in 1983. Many didn’t have copies of their articles, but I found them all in London,” Khan says.

Casting for the film was critical. While Ranveer Singh was the first to be cast to play 24-year-old captain Kapil Dev, casting the rest of the Indian team, the players in the English, Australian, West Indian and other teams, took one-and-a-half years.

“We had three layers of casting. The first was to find a rough physical similarity,” says Khan. "We wanted actors to embody the persona of those characters, not mimic them. Of course, we have given the mole and mustache to be similar, but the presentation does not need to be exact,” said Khan. 

The second stage was a cricketing audition conducted by the movie’s coaching consultant—and former India player—Balwinder Singh Sandhu. “We set up a pitch with nets outside the casting agent’s office and the boys had to show their cricketing talent. Ballu sir had to assess that if this boy is to play Madan Lal, then can he bowl like Madan Lal?”

The third stage was auditioning the performance. Around 2,000 young men went through the process, many were rejected. And this was just the Indian team. For the parts of Michael Holding, Vivian Richards, Imran Khan, Bob Willis, Ian Botham, etc., Khan decided “not to cast actors for the international teams since most of them are only shown playing”. So they auditioned first-class cricketers, hiring a UK-based casting agent who spent five months on the job.

Ranveer Singh was aware of the victory but unaware of the story that went with it. Khan recounted the details to the actor who was born a few years after 1983. “He grew up thinking these players were stars who went on to win the World Cup. But they were underdogs, written off by the international media.” 

The trailer and Singh’s casting has raised questions on the skew of the story: Will it become just about one individual? “In a trailer, you have to project the star to excite the audience,” says Khan. “Having said that, it is truly a team film, about this bunch of boys that nobody believed in. Kapil Dev led them and some of the things he did changed the tone of the game. But above all it is a team film, which is about the 25 days starting from 1 June 1983, ending with the final. There is no love story, backstory or anything like that.” Dev himself, now 62, is diplomatic about Singh’s portrayal. “A lot of how an actor portrays the character depends on the director. Ranveer was delightful to be with but the plot is the tournament, and that is about the entire team.”

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Besides months of sporting and fitness training, every actor had access to the player they were transforming into. From Saqib Saleem as Mohinder Amarnath to Adinath Kothare as Dilip Vengsarkar, Harrdy Sandhu as Madan Lal, Ammy Virk as Balwinder Singh Sandhu, Tahir Raj Bhasin as Sunil Gavaskar and Jiiva as K. Srikanth, they observed the players, watched videos and took on that persona. Khan’s only caution: “Don’t become lookalikes.” Additionally, Pankaj Tripathi plays team manager P.R. Man Singh and Deepika Padukone is cast as Romi Dev.

Are there any risks when making such a feel-good film? “You can go terribly wrong with '83. It gave me sleepless nights, because if you do not represent this iconic moment properly then you will not hear the end of it for the rest of your life,” says Khan. “It could go wrong in the way we celebrate the victory, in terms of the tone that we adopt. Then there is a thin line between true portrayal and caricatures. You could say this is an iconic moment but I could take that and make a dramatically drab film resting on the laurels of the event, unable to create drama on screen.”

Khan says he was clear about his intent and target audience. “I have not made this film for cricket buffs. This has to be a story for someone who knows nothing about cricket too. The story should stand on its own even if there is no cricket. Because people come to the theatre to watch human stories, they do not come to watch sports.”

Udita Jhunjhunwala is a writer, film critic and festival programmer.

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