The World Cup win in 1983 has been called the greatest moment for India since independence. I didn’t see independence, I may be old but not that old, but I saw 83. I can attest to how it was to live the experience of the World Cup victory of 1983, as a fan and as a young boy. I do not exaggerate when I say it transformed a generation’s very outlook on the world, on what we could do and what we could not. The word “magical” is over-used but let me use it for 83, for it truly was, and now decades since, I remember everything, every tremble of the heart, every tightening of the fist, every moment heard through the transistor or seen on a black and white TV, and I do not need to see the videos again or read the scorecards, it is all etched in my mind, like the first sensation of love, every little bit, and I may have forgotten many things hence, but never will I forget 83. For it was the age of believing and of Gods, and we saw them, on a cricket field, besting, not once but twice, the most fearsome team ever to walk out of a pavilion, and no one had given them any chance, and for good reason too, and yet they did it, in the same way no one in the 80s had given India, as a nation, much hope.
And yet here we are.
Which brings me back to 1983, being as it not just “a World Cup India won”, that would be 2011, but one that changed the course of history, in that it inspired, and I say this again without hyperbole, a generation.
Something as epic as 83 has always deserved a movie, and more, on it, because after all who reads books in this day and age? It needed someone to immortalize, through sights and sounds and music, what happened that summer in England, in the way Homer did for the Battle of Troy, so that even after the 80s generation passes, it will live on, through myth and fable, as epics do, Richards hitting that ball up in the air and Kapil running back, Yashpal Sharma throwing to the wrong end and getting Gatting run out, scenes straight out of a boy’s dream, except that these happened.
Kabir Khan’s 83 is not that movie. Kabir Khan chooses instead the “Ramgarh ki Sholay” approach, in that he decides to represent each member of that team with a duplicate, like unlicensed versions of real players in Brian Lara cricket , and have them redo the iconic cricket moments, as if people would care to see them being played out with duplicates, with the originals available on Youtube, pretty much exactly as they happened (not Dujon’s dismissal, Kabir Khan missed a detail there), and then, and here it is where things really go off the tracks, intersperse it with anecdotes from the World Cup, the exact same anecdotes the 83 alumni have telling over the years. Now of course this would have worked in a documentary, like Fire in Babylon or The Battered Bastards of Baseball, old clips and the real people talking about them, providing the moments context and leading us through what they felt, it would be fantastic and funny to hear Srikkanth talking about winking at the Queen. But in a movie when you dress up people as close as you can get to the physical likenesses of the players as you can get, which also works only for Kapil Dev, and not so much for the rest, and then have re-enact anecdotes, as in actually have the character playing Srikkanth winking at a sorry apology for the Queen, and not all of that is real either, like the mongoose bat or the repeated shots of glasses breaking from Kapil’s six, then all it is is an extended skit.
And that is not all. If the “Ramgarh ki Sholay” thing he has got going is not bad enough, there is quite a bit of “Awwal Number” too. No, I am not talking about Ektaa and Aamir Khan playing the recorded message or Dev Anand singing “It’s Cricket” while being the son of Cindy Crawford, that would have been great, but 83 seems to rely on that old trope from 80s and 90s Hindi movies, where specific characters are shown to be having conversations, whose only purpose is to provide the narrative background, lazy film-making of “telling” rather than “showing”.
And that’s not the only thing back from the cold storage. There are cartoonish caricatures with exaggerated facial expressions, the British and the queen, and cardboard-cut dialog, of the kind that one stumbles upon in films only on late-night insomnia-driven channel surfing binges, when even Suryavangshi seems like “Citizen Kane”. There are also extended imaginary sequences of Pakistan stopping bombing Indian lines because of the World Cup, an example of myth-making which came in for criticism online, but I can tell inform outraged by this de-contextualized “Aman ki Asha” is that the guy who Kabir Khan got to play Imran Khan, who looked more like Charles Shobraj than the great all-rounder, was about as much an act of war as sending an empty missile into Pakistan, perhaps even worse.
Now, if like me, you lived through 1983, you might enjoy 83, because in your head you will replace the duplicates with the real men, your mind will fill in the missing drama and context, and the old videos will play in your mind, and the movie will be redundant then, and the emotion you feel will be from your memories, and not necessarily from what is playing on the screen. But for those who are not of those times, 83 signifies nothing. Unless you already feel for the characters, the movie helps in no way.
As an example of how it should be done, consider Dhoni. No masterpiece, it still has two great scenes—one where Sushant Singh Rajput as Dhoni goes out to bat in the World Cup final (wisely it does not show the innings itself), and the one where Dhoni sits on the platform, on the verge of losing his job as a ticket checker for chronic absenteeism, and as an empty train rolls past, he hears the future, the sound of the crowd calling out his name, and he decides, in a marvelous moment of cinema, to hop onto the train, a leap of faith into another future.
There is not one moment like this in 83. Not even one that comes close. If you welled up while watching it, it was your memory doing the trick, not Kabir Khan.
But maybe that is by intent. Maybe by 83, Kabir Khan was signaling his intent to make a movie as if it was 83 rather than on 83. Which is why Indira Gandhi plays a more prominent part than most of the players who actually took the field, and why there is a lot of Manoj Kumar in the depiction of the British, and why overall it has the look and the feel of the 80s, though definitely not in an endearingly innocent, nostalgic way.