There is a scene in Azhar where Azhar has gone to watch a film with Naureen, his first wife. As Nargis Fakhri playing Sangeeta comes onto screen, her lips swollen like she walked into an Ambrose bouncer, it is Naureen who almost gets aroused, commenting to Azhar “kya khoobsoorat aankhein hai uski” and for those who have grown up in Bollywood, we know that”aankhein”is often an euphemism for some other components of a woman’s body. While wife getting turned on by another woman is a long-standing fantasy among Indian men, and by this time you should be thinking of Khulbhushan Kharbanda’s spontaneous eruption in front of bottles of “Crush” after stumbling upon his wife Shabana Azmi writing sensuously with Nandita Das in Fire, Azhar is immensely distraught by the licentiousness of the dance, and looks uncomfortably from side to side, like he did when the ball was bouncing near his head on fast tracks.
Yes that’s how innocent and honorable Azhar is, in his approved eponymous hagiography. Why did he take money from bookies? So that he bankrupts them, and prevents them from offering the same money to other players. Yes. You read that right. That’s the final reveal. Why was his career finished? Because some player suspiciously called “Manoj”, himself suspect in his loyalties, resented Azhar being the boss, and carried a grudge of having been seen nude in the dressing room. Why the extramarital affair? Because the first wife was unavailable, and how do we know that? Azhar sits down to a dinner with Naureen, asks her about the biriyani, she says “it’s good”, and Azhar asks “What about it is good? The rice? The spices? The flavor?” and Naureen says “It’s all good”, and Azhar loses his cool because no husband likes a wife who can’t deconstruct biriyani and the next thing you know he is in the arms of his mistress. Not convinced that he is an amazing person? Here is more. Azhar wants to tell his wife the marriage is over, but there are people at the house, so what can the poor man do except announce it on TV, leaving his wife not just heartbroken but also embarrassed?
Because you see Azhar did nothing wrong. Absolutely nothing. Everyone around him was bad, a resentful “Manoj”, a philandering “Ravi”, a difficult “Navjot”. And if throwing mud at everyone else in order to make him look good isn’t bad enough, there are bare-faced lies. Matches Azhar was accused of having fixed, are mixed with other matches, like the one in Bangalore where he got a bad decision, so that unless you lived through the Azhar era or read Cricinfo while others go to Pornhub, you would not realize that the game that started was not the one that finished.
But all this would be forgiven, if Azhar worked as a film. It does not. Amateurish and disjointed, with acting quality and direction straight out of a bad 90s movie, the kind where every extra in a room says “Dekho dekho woh Azhar” all together, and where comedy is some guy by the name of Reddy speaking “South Indian” Hindi, Azhar makes Kanti Shah look like Kurusawa. Emran Hashmi, who has three stock facial expressions “I am going to kiss you”, “I miss kissing you”, and “I have kissed someone else”, tried to go method by studying Azhar’s mannerisms. But what comes out is a parody. Besides the fact that Hashmi’s tongue is about as flexible as Azhar’s wrists, and both find gaps which others can’t reach, the decision to cast him is puzzling, though I doubt if even Daniel Day Lewis would be able to rise above the material. Prachi Desai looks much more convincing as Naureen, and is the most competent actor in the whole film, Sangeeta Bijlani should have sued the producers just because they got Nargis Fakhri to play her. Lara Datta, who is not playing Brian Lara but the prosecuting lawyer, who gets notes passed to her by the man she is prosecuting, hinting at a darker desire on the part of Azhar to crack three successive centuries with ladies too, looks bored throughout. Khulbhushan Kharbandha (yes of Fire fame) says some supposedly profound words in a Hyderabadi accent, of the Rajesh Khanna “Gaa beta gaa” variety in Disco Dancer, but does not make it past the first few reels.
The tragedy here is that this film could have been so much more. Azharuddin is India’s most controversial sports figure, a man of little privilege by birth, who broke through to the top purely on the dint of freakish talent only to fall as high as he rose, a man whose life has so much drama on and off the field, that it should not have been difficult to make a passably interesting film about him. Yet the director fails spectacularly, and that takes a Dodda Ganesh level of ability.
I wish I had not seen this film. And I say this, not as a purveyor of bad Bollywood, but as a fan of the man himself. Growing up, my favorite cricketer was Azhar. Not Sachin. Not Dada. Azhar. I was there, at the Eden, for his third century, and also when he carved England to all parts of the field, his bat twirling like a sword as it came down in a perfect arc, catching the light of a setting sun and of batsmanship of the kind that we will never seen again, the ball whizzing along the green grass in a blur of crimson, the English cricketers standing tiredly, as much audience as the eighty thousand else.
That is how I want to remember him.
Not as the man he became.
And definitely, not the man he wants us to believe he was.