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India's finest cricket hour gets the movie treatment

83 tells a classic underdog story and tries to make myths out of memory

Nishi Narayanan
The film recreates the balcony scene from Lord's after India's win  •  Getty Images

The film recreates the balcony scene from Lord's after India's win  •  Getty Images

It has been nearly 40 years since India's first World Cup title. That must feel like ancient history to fans who came of age this century, who have been spoilt by three world titles and the rise of a team that not only wins but dominates abroad. For those viewers, watching the movie 83 is probably like looking into a bizarre parallel universe, where no one gives their side a chance in hell.
I was born not long after India won the World Cup, so in a way it's a chapter of history for me too, like studying about the Mauryas or the Mughals. Every time a World Cup comes along, I go back to India's first title, looking up scorecards and players' accounts of the event, often as part of my work at ESPNcricinfo. If you ask me what I thought about it, I'd probably say something like: India's victory changed the course of the game itself. Maybe not entirely incorrect but certainly a reductive opinion.
Still, while watching the film, which chronicles all eight of India's matches at the World Cup, it struck me: this journey was so incredible, it could easily have been dreamed up by a scriptwriter, one with a fondness for high drama. Even if you ignore all the times India's underdog status is waved in your face like a giant flag and underscored by inspirational music, it's hard not to wonder: how did they do it?
India, whose only win in World Cups till then had come against a cobbled together East Africa side in 1975, were grouped with Australia, world champions West Indies, and Zimbabwe, in the tournament, scheduled to play each team twice before the semis. They opened with an unexpected win against West Indies and beat Zimbabwe, but were thrashed by Australia and (quite literally) bloodied by West Indies. Under pressure to win their fifth match, against Zimbabwe once again (a "do and die" as Kapil Dev, played by Ranveer Singh, says in the movie), they slipped to 17 for 5 before… if Ron Howard heard this pitch, he'd be dreaming of another Oscar already.
When film-makers adapt books, like the Wheel of Time series, or Lord of the Rings, or the Harry Potter ones, they take and transform what till then has only resided in the fan's imagination. Recreating a real-life event, especially one as popular as a sporting tournament, must be trickier. The retelling is always going to be a visually paler version of the original, and there is no payoff to build towards because the outcome is already known - often by a larger number of people than have read a book, in the case of novel-to-screen adaptations.
While a movie like Lagaan, which has some similar odds-stacked-against-them themes, could get away with amateurish-looking cricket because its Indian protagonists are meant to be novices and their English opponents aren't pros either, the suspension of disbelief is harder in 83. It's a bit jarring to watch a bowler complete his action, the ball land on the pitch, and then whoosh past the batter as three separate shots. The longer-range shots are more watchable than the close ones, but at no point can you slip into believing you're watching a cricket match as opposed to a film.
The film-makers probably understood that showcasing an elite level of the game would be beyond them. It feels like they instead chose to use cricket as a tool to tell a classic underdog story, focusing more on the little character moments than the big action.
If you have watched YouTube videos of various 1983 squad reunions over the years, you'll be familiar with many of those little moments we see in the film: Kapil's team meetings in his idiosyncratic English ("Cheeka, you hit; Sunny, you bat; Yashpal, you are a lion; Kiri, you have to keep"). Kris Srikkanth talking about how many of them had seen the World Cup as just a stopover on the way to a holiday in New York. Sandeep Patil's role as the team's entertainment director - "the night captain". (In a nice touch, Patil's son, Chirag, plays his father in the film, and Mali Marshall is cast as his dad, Malcolm.)
Players disagree with the authenticity of each other's recollections in these videos, but over time, many stories have solidified into narratives - like Srikkanth saying all the players thought Kapil was mad to suggest India could win the World Cup, and how that showed you the depth of his self-belief. And now, with the film, those memories will probably ascend to the level of myth, where many fans will struggle to believe it could have happened any other way.
Among the most legendary of the milestones before the win is Kapil's 175 not out at Tunbridge Wells, made all the more captivating here because it largely resides in the imagination of fans - the BBC didn't telecast the game*. The scorecard itself tells a pretty incredible story. India went from 9 for 4, when Kapil walked in, to 17 for 5 and 78 for 7, before getting all the way to 266 for 8. The script chooses to gloss over the fact that Zimbabwe, playing their first World Cup, would have been considered underdogs in this contest, focusing instead on the emotions of those experiencing Kapil's innings.
Might the re-enactment replace parts of what you have conjured up of the 175 in your mind's eye? Did Potter fans feel the same way when they saw Daniel Radcliffe in the role for the first time? And would that be aggravating?
I thought it was going to be, but although I was wary of being emotionally manipulated by the histrionics, I got a fleeting sensation of what Kapil's innings would have meant to those who watched it that day at the ground, and that appealed to me. If even a second-grade imitation could move me all these years later, how special must the original have been.
It's the peeks inside the dressing room, the camaraderie between the players, that delighted both the cricket fan and the movie fan in me. The charming detail of team manager PR Man Singh, blocked by the tall Ravi Shastri, leaning to his left to be visible in the squad's photo, and the camera cutting to the actual photo. Yashpal Sharma and Kirti Azad panicking when Lala Amarnath calls on the phone looking for his son, Jimmy. Kapil getting annoyed with his wife (played by Deepika Padukone) for demanding extra tickets to the final for their acquaintances but gently acquiescing to Sunil Gavaskar's request for the same.
I began to imagine listening to such anecdotes from today's cricketers - jokes between Rohit Sharma and Rishabh Pant; Mohammed Siraj clowning around in the dressing room and Jasprit Bumrah secretly feeling jealous of all the attention he's getting; Cheteshwar Pujara pretending he's dreaming about cricket when he was really dreaming about lunch. Which obviously made me wonder: which modern Indian series would translate well into a movie? Desert Storm in Sharjah? The 2000-01 Australia series? The 2007 T20 World Cup? It might be recency bias, but none of those seem to offer emotional highs and lows quite like the 2020-21 tour to Australia does- a hostile setting, countless misfortunes, protagonists who are bruised but not beaten, and a climactic will-they-won't-they ending. That's going to be my elevator pitch, if anyone's interested. Working title: Gabba Mere Rabba.
How closely must a sports movie be linked to the real event to appeal to you? What sort of cinematic license are you willing to give the film-makers? Like life, sport can often be random and disorderly while it happens and later arranged by us into slick little stories that make sense. 83 is like that, a neat little tale of no-hopers triumphing against the odds - fiction and reality bleeding into each other even in the minds of those who lived through it. That doesn't take away from what Kapil and Co achieved, but it makes it harder to tell the story any other way.
*December 28, 2021, 7.32 GMT: A previous version of the article stated that no television footage of the match exists because of a strike at the BBC. This has been changed

Nishi Narayanan is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo