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‘83’: Brilliant Film Spoiled By Over-The-Top Melodrama

Kabir Khan’s ode to Kapil Dev and cricket starring Ranveer Singh could have been excellent, but Bollywood melodrama trips it

Suparna Sharma Dec 24, 2021

A still from '83.'

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I don’t follow cricket, but I get the passion and frenzy surrounding it — on the pitch and in homes across the country.

Bollywood gets it too, and that’s why it is always on the lookout for cricketers and moments of sporting history to mount on the big screen. But it mostly makes a mess of it, letting the stars sabotage the sport.  

Director Kabir Khan’s 83 fixes that. There’s a lot of cricket in his film, and it is quite good.

83 meticulously charts the course of the Indian team that arrives in England as a pathetic joke but returns home with the trophy after beating England, Australia, Zimbabwe, and the formidable West Indies, a team considered to be almost unbeatable back then.

Cricket is the throbbing heart of Khan’s film. And all the emotions and desh ki izzat is hooked to 24-year-old Kapil Dev, the team’s soft-touch captain whose sights are set on winning.

Ranveer Singh, who plays Kapil Dev, may have a loud, psychedelic personality that screams for attention but he is also one of Bollywood’s finest, most sensitive actors. As Kapil Dev, he gives a sublime performance, simultaneously cradling the spirit of the times and the dignity of a captain who doesn’t say much but winces every time he hears a patronising or snide remark. With arms crossed over his chest, he keeps his emotions locked in, giving us just the occasional glimpse of what he may be thinking through his eyes. 

83, written by Kabir Khan, Sanjay Puran Singh Chauhan and Vasan Bala, has exhilarating cricketing moments and takes pains to recreate the Eighties with bulky TV sets, thick V-neck sweaters, long sideburns and black threads tied around Indian necks to ward off evil.

But, as the film gathers itself on the pitch and Kapil Dev and his team move closer to claiming the trophy, Bollywood rises to celebrate as it always does — with bhangra and the tiranga. There are weeping, cheering cricketer wives. Back home, a poor Muslim family is glued to their television. There’s an excited Indian-Parsi commentator. At Lord’s, a child is waving a hand-drawn tiranga, and a Sardarji in England says, “Jassi, dhol bajaa“.This filmy noise gets loud, repetitive and overwhelms the movie. 

Khan is a fine director, and he can do subtle. By that I mean, Bollywood subtle, Bajrangi Bhaijaan style. But in 83, he gets full-on filmy, embellishing and accessorising his love letter to cricket with melodrama, jhandas and rousing desh bhakti songs.

83 could have touched excellence in the hands of Khan; it could have been exquisite, first-rate, memorable. And for that, the director didn’t have to do more, he just had to do a little less.

Kabir Khan’s film charts the Indian cricket team’s ascent in England in the summer of 1983 as a David versus Goliath story. London bookies at that time were offering 50:1 odds against India. The country had a miserable World Cup experience until then, having won just one match in the previous two editions in 1975 and 1979, that too against a ragtag team called East Africa put together for the 1975 cup with part-time cricketers from Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Zambia.

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The 1983 team led by Kapil Dev (Ranveer Singh) and P.R. Man Singh (Pankaj Tripathi as the manager) were never in the reckoning. But they started well, beating the mighty West Indies by 34 runs in the first match, and Zimbabwe (who had beaten Australia) by five wickets two days later. Things then started to go downhill. India lost to Australia and West Indies in successive second-round matches. 

Panic turned to near disaster at Royal Tunbridge Wells on June 18 when India collapsed to an unbelievable 17 for 5 against the lowly placed Zimbabwe, with the top five batsmen — Sunil Gavaskar, Kris Srikanth, Mohinder Amarnath, Sandeep Patil and Yashpal Sharma — back in the pavilion. That’s when Kapil Dev walked in and played one of the greatest innings by an Indian ever, scoring a record-breaking and unbeaten 175 runs with help from bowlers Roger Binny, Madan Lal and wicket-keeper Syed Kirmani. 

With 16 4s and 6 6s, it was a performance for the ages — the highest ODI score by a batsman till then — a display of batsmanship that deserves its own Bollywood biopic. More so because a BBC strike ensured that no video footage exists of that match. India won the game by 31 runs, but more importantly, Kapil’s innings proved to be a massive morale booster, providing the team with the momentum to beat Australia and England in the next two matches to take the country to the finals. India played a total of eight games that summer, winning two, losing two and then winning the last four, including the final. 

Ranveer Singh in a still from ’83.’

If cricket is a religion in India, then the 1983 World Cup is one of its places of pilgrimage. 83 takes us on that historical tour, treating us to matches and moments that most Indians could not watch then. Only two of India’s eight matches were telecast by Doordarshan. During the final, there was even a `Rukavat ke liye khed hai‘ moment exactly when Kapil took Vivian Richards’ wicket with a glorious catch that changed the course of the match and the fate of Indian cricket. 83 gives us all that, but also the great Indian context.

1983 was a time when ODIs had 60 overs, and the Indian team’s return tickets were booked before the final match. At LOC, shelling from Pakistan deliberately increased when India played a significant match, and yet it was also a time when Kapil greeted `Imran bhai` with a hug and no hesitation.

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The film uses dot-matrix text on the screen —`Marshall to Srikkanth’, `Binny Roger to Lloyd’, `Holding to Gavaskar’ — and gets advertisements in the stadium and the manual scoreboard right to bring authenticity to the proceedings. Much of the attention is on Kapil Dev, the captain, who is shown to be speaking in his `Haryanvi English’. The film doesn’t laugh at him, instead, it flirts by playing “I don’t know what you say” from Ek Duje Ke Liye when he is trying to motivate the team.

The movie does not shy away from hinting at the underlying tension that existed between Kapil and Sunil Gavaskar (played by Tahir Raj Bhasin) at that time. The latter is shown to be selfish and sulking, but banter in the dressing room and a meeting with the Queen is used to assert that they all have shudh, desi hearts.

83 dishes out quite a few cute scenes and surprises, including Mohinder Amarnath’s father `Lalaji’ (played by Mohinder himself) who parks himself in front of a TV set to watch his son play, and the captain’s mummy Neena Gupta telling beta Kapil `jit ke aana’ as he gets ready to take on Vivian Richards’ team. It is also typically filmy at various levels, including the scene where it drags the news of the Nellie massacre in Assam from February 1983 to June,  giving Indira Gandhi the occasion to use cricket to calm and unite people. And as  West Indies win the toss and decide to bowl,  Indians are shown sending little boys to adjust TV antennas on terraces.

I wept as the dhols drowned out the calypso beats, and Kapil Dev sprayed champagne on cheering fans. But I also wished that 83 had been more like Kapil, restrained and with gravitas, rather than like the screaming fans with jhandas in their hands and on their cheeks.

With his measured body movement off the field and athletic long strides on it, Ranveer Singh senses and holds the film’s potential to be excellent till the very end. He plays Kapil with a jat accent but without any bombast.

Sadly, he is surrounded by men in terrible wigs that seem to have been pulled out from under heavy mattresses. Some actors are good — especially Jatin Sarna (Madan Lal), Saqib Saleem (Mohinder Amarnath), Ammy Virk (Balwinder Sandhu) and Jiiva playing Krishnamachari Srikkanth — while the others remain vague lookalikes. 

Ranveer Singh holds them together as a team with his reassuring presence that carries a whiff of India that was decent and quietly brilliant.

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