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Who is Pravin Tambe? A decade after the leggie's IPL debut, a biopic offers fresh answers

The former Rajasthan Royals spinner's unlikely rise in cricket is now the subject of a film

Debayan Sen
Pravin Tambe trains with Shreyas Talpade for Kaun Pravin Tambe?

Pravin Tambe (left) and Shreyas Talpade bowl in tandem  •  Kaun Pravin Tambe?

There is a poignant moment a little more than midway through Kaun Pravin Tambe?, the biopic about former Mumbai, Rajasthan Royals and Gujarat Lions legspinner Pravin Tambe, that you might miss unless you hit pause.
It comes at a point in the movie where Tambe, played by Shreyas Talpade, is going through a rough patch. His older brother and pillar of support, Prashant, played by Varoon Varma, is moving to the Netherlands for a job. The scene requires Prashant to offer his brother some money, which he refuses, as Pravin's wife comes into the frame.
"I don't know when the scene began," Talpade says, about when director Jayprad Desai shot the portion. "He offered me money, then I said no, and I didn't even realise when the wife came. I was so overcome with emotion that I just pulled Varoon towards me, hugged him and started crying. And he started crying. Jayprad was so emotional himself - he was behind the camera and he started crying. It was a minute or so before he said, 'Cut.'"
"I don't know when I became Pravin Tambe, knowingly or unknowingly."
Biopics about Indian sportspersons are rare, and ones on cricketers rarer still. It puzzles you, considering films and cricket have been the two principal obsessions across the country over the decades. Perhaps it is because movies require a suspension of disbelief that sits at odds with the authenticity of sport. Still, one of your first thoughts here is why it took them so long to make a movie about Pravin Tambe.
Here are the simple stats about his life: An IPL debut for Royals in 2013, followed by a Champions League season later in the year, where he was the top wicket-taker. The following IPL, a hat-trick against Kolkata Knight Riders in Ahmedabad fetched him the purple cap after the 25th game of the season. Sandwiched in between was a first-class debut for Mumbai, and six years on, history again as he became the first Indian cricketer to play in the CPL. Extraordinarily this journey began at the age of 41.
"I was stunned," is what Tambe remembers of his first reaction when Sudip Tewari of Boot Room Sports Media, the production company behind the film, first broached the idea of a biopic around the time of the 2014 season. "A movie on me? Mujhe laga mazaak kar rahe hain [I thought they were playing a prank].
"But I feel great now because I had never thought I would be able to relay my story to so many people. When I started off, I didn't know how far I would get to play. "Lagan thi ki accha cricket kheloon [The only desire that drove me was to play good cricket]. I just gave it everything I had, and maybe this movie is a reward for that effort."
The film itself is a pleasant watch, with a fine cast that includes experienced names like Ashish Vidyarthi, Arif Zakaria and Parambrata Chatterjee. Cricket is at the heart of the story, but it is as much about Tambe the man as his long road to success.
Tewari speaks of the creators' desire for "authenticity" and their quest to "reflect the roots of Pravin's life" in a Maharashtrian ethos. Humour serves as the bed on which drama resides - as it does, for instance, in a scene in a hospital room where Tambe is getting treatment for a fractured foot; the doctor is fascinated when he discovers he is talking to a legspinner and seeks tips on how to improve his own bowling.
The realism and writing are in keeping with two fine films of the genre - Iqbal and M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story - and Kaun… has significant links to both. While Tewari's partner at Boot Room, Neeraj Pandey, directed the Dhoni film, Talpade shot to fame playing the eponymous deaf and mute fast bowler in Nagesh Kukunoor's Iqbal.
By his own admission Talpade was an average cricketer in his younger days, with three older brothers in his joint family all excelling in the sport. He laughs about "never even making the XV".
"My eldest brother was quite embarrassed, and after my tenth-grade exams, he took me early in the morning to [Ramakant] Achrekar sir's nets and he enrolled me there," he says.
After a few months, the coach moved him from the U-14 nets to the U-19 ones ("He probably saw some potential") but soon the theatre bug would bite Talpade. That was when sport - table tennis, badminton, cricket, "not so much" football, "sometimes" hockey - took a back seat.
It helped in his preparation for Iqbal that he had bowled medium pace in his younger days, and he was still in first-hand touch with cricket, through weekend games alongside Marathi theatre, television and film personalities in places like Kalina, Pune and Dombivli. For this film, he had to make the transition to legspin, not unlike Tambe himself.
"I used to be a fast bowler. I was short but I had good pace and I could swing the ball, though the wickets weren't too helpful," says Tambe. "There was one game for Orient [his corporate team] where the ball stopped swinging and the captain suggested I try spin. We won that match and from there I enjoyed bowling spin." Tambe worked with his coach on his wrist position and straightening his run-up, and the results were quite dramatic.
For his part, Talpade spent three months in cricket and character training to become Tambe. "There is slightly extra speed and extra jump in his action because of his medium-pace background," says Talpade. "I thought I might as well learn it like him, so that whenever I am bowling, or practising, or just sitting and spinning the ball in one place, let me do it like Pravin."
Tambe is fulsome in his praise of how Talpade picked up the nuances of his action. "I have turned to coaching now, and it's a difficult art. You have to use your wrists, you have to jump with proper timing. But he got it spot-on within one or two weeks of me showing him.
"He's a very good human being. Speaking with him felt like chatting with a younger brother."
The feeling is mutual. Talpade talks of Tambe as a "brother from another mother". He likens Tambe to Jackie Chan, what with his bent fingers and calluses - a legacy of the amount of bowling he has done.
"There were times when he was playing an IPL match, and he had bowled three balls, and there was a catch in his back," Talpade says. "He said, 'I had to finish the over. I couldn't tell anyone, right?' Because as it is, people were talking about his age. So he said, 'I was in immense pain, but I finished that over and then I finished two more overs and then I came in.' I was like, 'Dude, what are you made of?'"
When you speak to anyone associated with the film, the words "perseverance", "discipline" and dedication" come up quite often. Talpade used Tambe as an inspiration whenever he felt aches and pains - which was not rare, given he sometimes bowled ten overs non-stop for the cameras, as Desai shot from different angles.
Tambe says he never thought his age ought ever to have been a factor in judging him. "I have had a lot of negativity in my life but never given it a second thought," he says. "When I got into the IPL, all I tried to learn was: how do big players think and prepare for the game?
"When I started playing, everybody only ever talked about my age. They never spoke about my performance [though] I would think, 'I am playing well and bowling well'.
He speaks of having bowled to the best in the business, but having had the toughest time bowling to AB de Villiers, who took the most runs off him in his time in the IPL. "I always read the batter's mind, but he was one batter who could play with mine."
Once the movie was finished, Tambe and Talpade got together for a media day in their whites at Shivaji Park. Talpade laid down a challenge, six balls apiece, and joked that he would be depositing Tambe on the roof of the nearest high-rise. "As usual, he was all praise for my bowling - 'Look at the way he is spinning the ball,'" Talpade says. "I went, 'look at the way you are spinning the ball!'
"Then we had our vada pav at Kirti College and cutting chai. That was also the first time both of us saw the trailer, and he got so emotional, he couldn't speak initially."
For Talpade, the film has been an emotional experience because the reception tells him it is a redefining moment for his career. "I have been known to do a lot of comedy films, so people had not only forgotten that I had started with a serious film like Iqbal, but most of them had also written me off," he says.
The best bit of feedback came after a screening for the subject of the film. "I asked him what his thoughts were, and he said, 'Please don't mind my saying this, but I didn't see you in the film. I saw Pravin, I saw myself, living all that I have lived through.'"
"That, for me, is the biggest compliment that you can get."