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Review: 83 has all the giddiness and unsubtlety of a sugar rush

Kabir Khan's film underlines everything but gets cricket right, is overwrought but joyful 

The Indian team in Kabir Khan's ‘83’
The Indian team in Kabir Khan's ‘83’

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In films that go all out, there's usually a moment from which there's no coming back. In Kabir Khan's 83, there's about half a dozen of these. My favourite is the one that comes during Kapil Dev’s knock of 175 against Zimbabwe, an innings without which India would not have progressed beyond the group stage of the 1983 Cricket World Cup. Dev, warming up to the task, pulls the ball lustily. The ball flies into the stands and is caught by... Kapil Dev.

As people around me cheered, I just stared at the screen. I wanted to groan, but I also wanted to laugh at the audacity of brandishing the actual Kapil so blatantly in a movie about his greatest sporting moment. It is, of course, an unnecessary, incredibly silly, fourth-wall-demolishing move. But it also conveys such a naked need to please viewers, to give them everything—event, recreation, myth, parody—all at once that it feels like the entire 163 minutes boiled down into one overwrought gesture. 

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Comedians warn against putting a hat on a hat, trying to hang an extra joke on one that's already working. 83 puts a hat on a hat on a hat, then wraps them in Ranveer Singh’s fur coat. Every scene comes with four layers of good cheer. Even when India is losing, someone’s always on hand with a wisecrack or a malapropism or encouragement for the future. If all else fails, there’s Pritam’s music to hit you over the head with.

This much we knew: Kabir Khan was never going to make a restrained film on India’s first World Cup win. 83 recalls his Bajrangi Bhaijaan (2015) not only in its sweetness and maximality but also its maddening simplicity. Baby Sachin turns up at the end and says “I’ll play for India one day.” Pakistani forces suspend shelling on the border so Indian jawaans can hear the radio commentary in peace. A communal riot is put on hold for the finals. Khan's optimism can sometimes make him seem naïve. 1983 didn’t solve India, as the events of 1984 showed. 

Only two people seem to have any sort of expectations for the Indian team: captain Kapil Dev (Ranveer Singh) and the team’s resourceful manager, PR Man Singh (Pankaj Tripathi). The other players are more practical. They know India isn’t a serious one-day team. It has only won one game in the two previous World Cups—against East Africa, which, as Kris Srikkanth (Jiiva) points out, isn’t even a real country. In seam-friendly England conditions, it has only one genuine pacer in Kapil. When the captain tells reporters in his halting English, “We here to win,” it’s met with patronising smiles.

Everyone knows what happened after: a surprising win over the mighty West Indies; order restored after two crushing losses; Kapil’s 175 against Zimbabwe, one of the greatest ODI innings ever; dispatching Australia and England on route to the finals, where the West Indies are again beaten. For each match, Khan and his co-writers, Vasan Bala, Sumit Arora and Sanjay Puran Singh Chauhan, zoom in one or two key players: Yashpal Sharma (Jatin Sarna) in the opener against the West Indies, Roger Binny (Nishant Dahiya) in the must-win game against Australia. It’s a smart strategy—by the time the finals come around, you feel you know the entire team (except poor Sunil Valson, who even here is treated like a twelfth man). 

Those scarred by MS Dhoni (2016) will be relieved to know the on-field action in 83 is entirely convincing. This is doubly impressive because the cricket in this film doesn’t just have to look authentic, it has to be specifically right, from Viv Richards' aggressive gum-chewing down to the way certain catches were taken and runouts effected. There is, of course, some creative cutting and slo-mo to help the actors along. But it’s immensely satisfying to see moments like the magical Balwinder Singh Sandhu inswinger to dismiss Gordon Greenridge in the finals—foreshadowed by a ball that beats Sunil Gavaskar in the nets—executed with precision (Khan is so pleased he cuts to a still photograph of the actual dismissal).

Khan’s enthusiasm runs away with him at times. There’s the overly cute idea of introducing the West Indies pace quartet through the eyes of awestruck Indian players in the nets (I’m sure Indian cricketers hero-worshipped the Windies pacers, but to have them describe each one out aloud is a stretch). Dev mentions Tony Greg’s infamous ‘grovel’ quote and says it fired up the West Indies to win the World Cup; the sentiment is right but it really goaded them to win the 1976 series in England (they’d already won the World Cup in 1975). And the sharpness of portraiture on the field isn’t matched elsewhere. The Indian spectators—a young boy with a flag, two factory workers—are sentimental figures rather than fleshed-out characters, and Romi, Kapil’s wife, is an inconsequential cameo for co-producer Deepika Padukone. 

Singh builds Kapil Dev not from the bowling action down but from the accent out. It’s a canny decision, for Dev’s speaking voice has a measured, gentle quality that's at odds with his gung-ho playing style. Singh’s Kapil is a cajoler, a leader by example but also through encouragement and clever man-management. It’s an unexpectedly charming portrayal from an actor who’s a lot smarter than he lets on. He’s supported by a well-chosen, effective cast; I’d single out Jiiva, hilarious as Srikanth, and Nishant Dahiya as a soft-voiced Roger Binny.

Before the first game, Kapil is encouraged by Man Singh to give the team a pep talk on the bus. Reluctantly, he says a few words in his broken English. In the background, Hum Bane Tum Bane Ek Duje Ke Liye, with its refrain of “I don't know what you say”, is playing. It’s a smart juxtaposition, but Khan doesn’t want to rely just on those watching carefully. He wants the inattentive viewers, the ones there only to see Deepika, the ones heading to the loo. So after Kapil finishes his excruciating address, the players start singing “I don’t know what you say” to him. This is Hindi cinema. Everything is underlined. But what’s a little repetition in a film with all the giddiness and unsubtlety of a sugar rush?

Also read: Kabir Khan on the spirit of 83

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