Main Hoon Shahid Afridi September 21, 2013

Masala goes Boom Boom

An unabashedly populist new potboiler uses cricket to offer a window into modern Pakistan

Recently, I was part of a discussion on films and cricket, and whether a successful confluence of the two was possible. The venerable Sam Collins had most of us agreeing when he pointed out that a major obstacle was the fact that sport regularly provided the sort of implausible scenarios that would come across as trite if scripted. Ashton Agar's 98 on debut from No. 11 in the Ashes was one such example. My own feeling was that, in addition, the viewer's experience would be let down by a cinematic approach to depicting the game, particularly the use of sound effects and gameplay.

In that sense, it is plausible that masala films would provide the most agreeable paradigm for cinematically translating cricket. Referred to as masala for their mixture of genres (action and comedy and romance and drama), such films are part of a greater tradition of oral narrative. Think epics with linear plots, comedic and musical tangents, simple good v evil dynamics, happy endings.

Originally looked down upon by intellectuals, masala films with their populism and mass appeal are now embraced and celebrated thanks to post-modernism. In the context of cricket and films, this means that an over-the-top storyline, bombastic characters and sounds, as well as a sickeningly saccharine resolution would be expected rather than dreaded. After all, the ultimate aim of any masala film is to entertain the public. (Gee, I wonder who that reminds us of?)

Main Hoon Shahid Afridi (I am Shahid Afridi) is a story of an underdog team's rise against the backdrop of a fictional domestic cricket tournament in Pakistan. It revolves principally around Akbar Deen, a former international cricketer seeking redemption after a UAE drugs scandal left him shunned. He is the reluctant coach of the Sialkot Shaheens, owned by the hilarious yet lovable Malick Khalid, and led by Shahid Bhatti - an amateur cricketer hoping to become Boom Boom. Pitted against them is the magnificently Modi/Packer/Stanford-esque Mian Asif, who owns the Islamabad Hunters - a team of boys from the "elite ruling class". Mian Asif, in the first of a million twists, is also Akbar's father-in-law.

As a film, MHSA is quite ludicrous in its construction. Despite a street-smart score and decent soundtrack, the remarkably funny and sharp dialogue is recorded in a way as to make it seem to belong to an error-strewn student film. The colour correction is similarly jarring, displaying as much logic as a typical Afridi innings, often completely changing tones mid-scene. And even making allowances for the masala format, many of the plot lines are lazily developed and hastily resolved. Nevertheless the depleted nature of Pakistani cinema's intellectual, technical and financial resources requests, if not demands, a level of charitableness in opinion.

To be a successful masala film, MHSA required an underlying fantasy; the earliest masala films were about mythological tales. In Pakistan during the past few decades, the local film industry saw its fortunes dwindle, but blindly held onto the once-popular but increasingly irrelevant gandasa-wielding badmaash formula, based on violent rural revenge fantasies. The genius behind MHSA, in contrast, is its expropriation of cricket as the overarching source of the fantasy on which its plot is based, a relatively unprecedented approach in mainstream Pakistani cinema.

The requisite good v evil narrative of every masala film is provided in MHSA by the class differences - rather than regional, ethnic or religious ones - with the rich Islamabad Hunters players being "gentlemen who will speak and talk to foreigners without feeling insecure".

In contrast, the Sialkot Shaheens are all working-class ruffians who have little other than their dreams. There are numerous father-son conflicts throughout the plot, which are resolved through the traditional miracle-of-god* and tears-of-mother approach, but also through cricket. The game exists as one of the archetypes upon which the film's moral universe rests.

In fact, cricket completely permeates the film. Crooked umpires, Martin Crowe's 1992 World Cup strategies, dressing-room bust-ups, on-field bust-ups, press conference bust-ups, Shoaib and Sania, the street-urchin-turned-Test-star, IPL parties, fast bowlers on PEDs, Allen Stanford's helicopter at Lord's, Kamran Akmal's keeping, Qadir teaching Warne how to bowl a googly with an apple, the MCC (Malik Cricket Club), Miandad at Sharjah, post-match interviews in English, over-age players in a U-19 side, bitchy journalists, old Pepsi ads with Imran and the two Ws - the film is jam-packed with cricket references, woven into a populist, aspirational story.

In being such, the film offers a window into Pakistan; a window only as true as an Afridi hoick that ends up over cover for six, but a window nevertheless that shows a Pakistani identity far more endearing and relatable than the infinite attempts made post 9/11 by the media, and in literature and film.

To use a cliché when it is finally due, MHSA is a truly "mercurial" film.

*(It actually rains right at the very moment the cocky Australian coach of the Hunters mocks the Shaheens with the immortal line: "Ab kahan hai tumhara khuda? Where is your God now?")

Main Hoon Shahid Afridi
Dir: Syed Ali Raza Usama
Starring: Hamza Abbasi, Mohammad Ahmad, Ainan Arif

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