'It would have been terrible to walk out knowing people aren't expecting anything from me'
At one point in the biopic-documentary Sachin: A Billion Dreams (SABD), over images of Sachin Tendulkar walking out in the semi-final of the 1996 World Cup, Harsha Bhogle's voice is heard asking, "Can you imagine the pressure on a 22-year-old?"
It's what everyone who followed Tendulkar's career from the start asked themselves and then assumed they knew the answer to. Such crushing public expectation would surely gnaw at his mind, fuel anxiety and keep him on edge.
It is the day of the SABD premiere and Tendulkar is on the phone with me, about to stand a theory on its head. "It was good for me, this expectation, this huge responsibility I felt." Fine, accepted, heard this before. Then he goes on: "It would have been terrible to walk outside knowing that people are not expecting anything from me." In slow deliberation, a pause between each word, he explains, "That. I. Would. Not. Have. Enjoyed. At. All." In case you didn't understand, he adds, "I enjoyed people expecting things from me."
He kept going because we kept going because he kept going.
Who knew? That which is capable of swallowing you whole could actually feed you.
It certainly fed and nurtured India's most widely loved cricketer for nearly a quarter of a century. It led to a career that broke records and a movie that will serve as nostalgia and a reminder.
Indian cinema has only recently welcomed sports biopics, starting with Paan Singh Tomar (2012), about a national champion athlete who turned into a dacoit, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (2013), about Olympic sprinter Milkha Singh, Mary Kom (2014), about the Olympic medal-winning boxer, and most recently MS Dhoni: the Untold Story and Dangal (2016), about Olympics wrestling coach Mahavir Phogat and his wrestler daughters Geeta and Babita*.
Let's get SABD the film out of the way before returning to the man. It released this Friday in five languages, with Tendulkar telling his story in English, Hindi and Marathi along with versions in Tamil and Telugu. The movie's own story has done the rounds: Tendulkar was approached in 2012 and it took eight months for his producer-friend Ravi Bhagchandka to convince him to put life onto film.
Throughout his career, Tendulkar's identity as a competitor was distinctive, clearly defined, its presence felt and impact known in an explosion of gargantuan numbers and achievements. The public, who will come to watch SABD, says Tendukar, "know the numbers, when it comes to statistics they know everything." It is the stuff on the fringes however - the before, the after, the in-between in shadows and silences - that put together a sporting career. Tendulkar has let his public into that world removed from the records, far more than he has previously revealed.
On media rounds before SABD's release, he earnestly told an interviewer: "This is real-life stuff - these are not made-up stories." What Tendulkar is willing to show of himself on film and talk about around the movie is in itself intriguing.
Tendulkar's earliest years are shown by actors pulling off convincing portrayals of him, his family and coach Ramakant Achrekar at different ages. Scenes were shot in Tendulkar's small, old family flat in Sahitya Sahwas Housing society and it is as real-life as it can get. Around age 15, the real Tendulkar pops up on video footage and newspaper clippings as first a batting prodigy, then Test debutant and public figure.
SABD has delicious footage of old matches, groups and personalities, as well as clips from the family and private team videos. It's light on controversy, but there are sufficient slices of the unexpected - net practice in the monsoon, the glue and sandpaper from his kitbag - to keep the fans happy. The film straddles the genres of biopic and documentary, much like Tendulkar's life itself played out on two separate stages. He had to grow up in the public eye from the age of 16 and would have, you imagine, tried to hold on to an essential identity he considered precious.
For the outside world, he was to become the undisputed Mr India for his entire career. Like India, his numbers are enormous. Like India, much of him is also contrarian, often the everyday mystic. We are talking about the current changes coursing through cricket and whether Tendulkar would have liked to have been 16 today - an attacking batsman with the radical adventures of T20 at his door. He says, "Even if I did, what am I going to do 20 years down the line from then? Am I again going to feel like playing 20 years down the line? That's never-ending."
Then comes a curious summary. "Everyone comes with a quota… of X number of matches, X numbers of wickets and X number of runs… God has given talent to everyone in different fields, so we just have to respect and worship that talent." By that account, Tendulkar's "quota" appears to have been fairly generous and he made sure he maxed out.
Along with being an emphatic sign-off on a career of abundance, the movie also gave Tendulkar an opportunity for personal re-examination and acknowledging a restless (that's a word he uses surprisingly often) inner life.
Ask him if there is anything he had wished he had done differently and the cricket is in focus again. "Always," he says "always." You think regrets but he talks of dismissals. "It didn't matter if I'd scored 10 or 110. If you play a shot and you've been dismissed, you feel I should have blocked the ball. If you block the ball and get out, you say, oh I should've attacked. So the other side is always better."
There you go - the maestro as perpetual second-guesser.
Tendulkar has been a sporting superstar, a pop culture icon, a national hero and a load bearer of public expectation. Journalists spent two decades trying to fit together, like a jigsaw, the pieces of his personality with his cricketing achievements. The boy who barely spoke in public for ten years was an ice-cold serial killer of bowling plans, who found it hard to sleep before Test matches.
A relentless self-examiner, Tendulkar says it took him 15 years, "almost 100 Test matches" to come to terms and "accept that this is my way of preparing before a Test." The moment he did that, "it became… not entirely comfortable, but marginally easy to manage." To worry about worrying about a Test wasn't, he had worked out, frankly worth more worry.
Attempting to read Tendulkar's mind and suss out the root of his motivations has been a failed enterprise. They turn out to be both large and small, complex and simple. "My dream was to play and I got to play for 24 years. I am happy and satisfied."
These days, he is almost apologetic about not being "as engaged" with cricket as he was in his playing days. "I like following, of course, the involvement is there." But he has stopped doing professional homework - watching Australia play New Zealand because India would be playing one of them next. "You would watch them, see what they are doing, what is their armoury, what are the areas I can attack them, those kinds of things. But that I don't need to worry about now."
For all that SABD is a public appreciation of the cricketer from a producer who is a fan, the film is also Tendulkar's personal tribute to his father. The most moving portion appears in the middle. It is a long way away from Yuvraj Singh crying into Tendulkar's shoulder after the 2011 World Cup victory or his Wankhede Stadium farewell speech in 2013. It is not even an image, but rather Tendulkar's voice, reading out lines from his father Ramesh's poetry in Marathi.
In the second half of his career, Tendulkar was a changed batsman, tempered down and belted-in for the longest possible haul. His post-retirement career has been filled with a slew of appearances, an autobiographical tome, a host of eyebrow-raising sponsorship deals, and now this movie. Of course, as pathologically inquisitive journalists, we will always want to know more - the dark side, what did he know about match-fixing, his sources of anger, his weaknesses, distractions, confusions, errors of judgement. Everyone has them, but would you put yours out on wide-screen, surround-sound?
May 28, 13:10GMT: Bhaag Milkha Bhaag and Dangal were added to the list of recent biopics made in Bollywood
Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo