September 5, 2013

The idea of Afridi

His larger-than-life aura is fittingly captured by a melodramatic, entertaining new masala movie that takes what he means to Pakistan to its logical conclusion

Shahid Afridi: naturally, inevitably, the subject of a film © Getty Images

"If you wanna hear the crowd [x2]
Screaming out your name so loud
If you wanna hear the crowd
Say...
Boom boom - Afridi"
- "Boom Boom Afridi", The Duckworth Lewis Method

It's poetic how in an age where televised cricket, and its attendant haste and excess, has become the core of how the game is viewed and played, the fastest century ever made in international cricket, the most TV-friendly innings of all time, doesn't have an iconic image associated with it, existing only in the mind, as some sort of platonic ideal of modern, consumer-friendly cricket.

It was the first time that the player in question had batted, but since then, each of the 441 times SMS Khan Afridi has walked out to bat in international cricket, all of us, and most of all him, have tried to relive that gloriously improbable memory.

While there isn't an image of that innings that defines Afridi, there are a plethora of images, ideas and imaginations of Afridi himself. It is difficult to think of a more consistently evocative player in the game, particularly when measured not in terms of perceptions of greatness but of impressions on fans. In fact, Afridi's purely cricketing abilities are almost ordinary, even embarrassing, for someone so popular.

His unprecedented ball-biting sent ad men from India to Australia into a frenzy. No other living being exists so pervasively in Pakistani advertising, simply because Afridi seems to fuel the nation's fantasies. He has even inspired a range of sporting goods. But then again, the lure of Afridi is not really just about the endorsements, is it?

In 2011, two Americans who had never known of any cricket outside the realm of entomology were given a recording of the India-Pakistan Mohali semi-final from the World Cup and asked to blog their experience of watching it. After about five hours of hilarious attempts at working out the rules and the narrative, one of them wrote: "Suddenly, out of nowhere, I am very much rooting for Pakistan. I want to see Shahid Afridi happy."

Gulshan-e-Iqbal's Golden Son has a habit of making men weak in the knees. Jarrod Kimber, who described his playing style as "an acid freak in a children's playground", has based his most erotically riotous writing on Lala. On Youtube, there is a shaky phone video of an elderly Pashtun man singing a song composed for Lala, in the manner previous generations would sing for their warriors. In shops across Karachi, the world's largest Pushtun city and Afridi's hometown, framed pictures of the owner with Afridi have taken on an almost totemic value. Lala lives in neon vehicular art, in spicy street slang, in gaudy SMS jokes. He is larger than life in a way few Pakistanis have ever been.

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"Kenya ke baghaat se aayee ek saughat... Na koi laya, na koi laye" ("From the gardens of Kenya arrived a blessing... none had brought it, none ever shall")
- lyrics from a Pakistani tea commercial

The prophetic Osman Samiuddin, writing just before Shahid Afridi embarked on the most successful spell of his 16-year career, said that the first innings Lala ever played - on that obscure ground in Kenya during a forgotten tournament - had come to "generally haunt" his career.

From 2005 till 2011 was a time when Afridi took the team to Test series wins, captained it to a semi-final, dragged it to another final, and in between won us our first major trophy in 17 years. During those resplendent years we strove to rationalise him as a cricketer, to label him as a bowler who occasionally batted, to reclaim him from the haunting image. But cricket, for all its wonder, couldn't contain the other-worldly persona it had generated for Lala, and neither could it deliver him from it. It needed something more.

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"Tu mila, Mila sahara / Bin tere nahi guzara / Roz naye sapnay dekhanay waley / Haan Boom Boom" ("I found you, found support / Without you, I cannot cope / You, who give me new dreams each night / Oh yes, Boom Boom")
- from Nazia Hasan's '80s pop anthem "Boom Boom"

In being the bearer of impossible expectations, Afridi the man and the cricketer paid a heavy price. But now in the twilight of his career, the legend of Boom Boom has found its new place, transcending its corporeal form

The film-maker Hasan Zaidi says it would be naive and premature to label the success of one film as the revival of Pakistani cinema. Despite much lamentation, the country's film industry, which has been in purgatory for two decades, never stopped releasing films, and even manages a hit once every few years, though Hasan maintains that "one blockbuster every three or four years does not a revival make". But despite his caution, he is among the countless many delighted by the prospects of a single film, Main Hoon Shahid Afridi (I am Shahid Afridi).

Like the man's batting, and in the grand tradition of masala films, the plot is ludicrous and predictable, and often folds over itself to provide contrived resolutions. There is unnecessary melodrama and sentimentality, and the female characters exist solely to throw masculinity into relief.

And yet in the best Boom Boom style, the film is relentlessly entertaining, running at a maniacal speed, chock-a-block with devilish charm and playful one-liners. Its handling of religion is a great example of its cheekiness - like the kiss Lala once blew Jacques Kallis. In a country where elected officials have been murdered for standing up for Christians, this film has a cross-religious buddy-story side narrative that's clumsy yet fearless. Shrewdly, the film packs a heavy dose of rich-villain-versus-poor-underdog drama, and it is loaded with cricket references ranging from Allen Stanford's chopper to Mohammad Asif being busted for drugs. Crucially, Afridi doesn't exist as a character at any point, serving instead as the basis upon which the film's fantasy takes root.

For me, as I watched the film and finally embraced the desi penchant for dancing and applauding in cinemas, it dawned upon me that we - the Boom Boom generation - had finally found a resolution for our superhero. For of course, the man, the idea, the image that has loomed for so long over our collective conscience was naturally, inevitably meant for this.

In an era of many volatile changes in Pakistan, Afridi stood as the one source of not hope, but of dreams, of fantasies, of improbabilities. In being the bearer of impossible expectations, in being the receptacle of millions of hopes, in existing as the one uniting symbol in a divided nation, Shahid Afridi the man and the cricketer paid a heavy price. But now in the twilight of his career, the legend of Boom Boom has found its new place, leaving behind its corporeal form and transcending onto celluloid.

This is Afridi as cinema.

Ahmer Naqvi is a journalist, writer and teacher. He writes on cricket for various publications, and co-hosts the online cricket show Pace is Pace Yaar. He tweets here

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