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Breaking the Class and Cultural Barriers: Why Kabir Khan’s ‘83’ Moved Middle-aged Indian Men to Tears

Breaking the Class and Cultural Barriers: Why Kabir Khan’s ‘83’ Moved Middle-aged Indian Men to Tears

  • The movie is about India's first victory in Cricket World Cup, but watching people's reactions, it looked much more than just a sports victory.

The movie 83 had been in the making for a few years now. When I first heard that Bollywood is planning to make a movie on the 1983 World Cup victory, I admit I was not very enthused. Apart from the films “Lagaan” and “Chak de! India,” Bollywood is not known to make very good sports movies. For the above two, the directors had the freedom to add the regular Bollywood masala like drama, music, and dance. For the movie “83,” however, it was always challenging to play with facts. India is a cricket-crazy nation, and most Indians have stats and nuances of the game at their fingertips. They would never accept deviation from the memories of that victory that is etched in the minds of every Indian growing up in that era.

The film was finally released last week with rave reviews. I decided to watch it just because, like other Indians, I am an avid cricket lover. I liked the movie and have to admit that, like numerous others in the theater, I teared up multiple times during the 3-hour-long film. The mask came in handy as I could use it as a handkerchief while also using it as a prop to hide my tears from my college-going son. My son counted at least ten people wiping their tears at one point. My son found it very amusing, and you cannot fault him for that.

While watching the movie, I wondered what it is in the film that has moved me. The cricketing victory is one, but there is more to it. It has to do with the timing of that victory; the year 1983 holds a special meaning in so many ways. I was a teenager then, and like so many Indian kids, were crazy about cricket. India until then had almost no cricketing victories of note. You could say that for sports in general. We had heard about glorious hockey gold medals in the Olympics and the magician Dhyanchand. Still, they were so long ago that it was almost like folklore. India had won a gold medal in hockey in 1980, but only because most Western countries had decided to boycott the Olympics. Even flying Sikh Milkha Singh could only finish fourth in the Olympics.

Suffice to say that India’s presence in sports was almost zero on the world stage. There was a collective feeling amongst us that as Indians, we are somehow physically inferior to compete against the might of the Europeans, Australians, and even the West Indians. The lack of confidence was not just in sports. As a society, we were still suffering from a colonial hangover. We were all trying to ape the Westerners, to be like them. To be successful, one had to study in an English medium school and be fluent in English. If you had relatives or family friends abroad who would occasionally visit and bring gifts, that raised your esteem in the society. Western goods were much sought after. A sip of Budweiser or a puff of Marlboro cigarette was a heavenly experience.

The journey to World Cup victory started with the selection of Kapil Dev as captain. The talent and skill of Kapil as a player was never in doubt, but to make him the captain?!

India was still a controlled economy and famous for its ‘Hindu rate of growth.’ Western goods were in huge demand but not available. Despite the money, the rich people could only drive Ambassadors and Fiats. The middle class was happy to own a Bajaj scooter. Every kid wanted to watch Hollywood movies and listen to Western music. Still, only the resourceful could manage to get it. Some of my wealthy friends would get pirated video cassettes of Hollywood movies that we would watch on their VCR when the parents were not at home. It used to be the highlight of the year for us.

Just a year before the World Cup, India had hosted the Asian Games. It had opened up the doors for many Indian households to start owning TVs. However, it was still not something that most Indians could afford. If one house had a TV, the entire neighborhood would be watching. It, in my opinion, added to the popularity of the World Cup victory. Each victory would result in impromptu community celebrations. Replicate it to millions of homes across the country, and one can imagine the energy coming out of it. Even today, when we watch a critical game, whether it is cricket or football, we try to gather as many friends as to create that community feeling.

With that as the backdrop came the World Cup. Nobody had given a semblance of a chance to the team. Srikanth talks about it in the movie; most players had planned to leave soon after the group games, assuming they would not make it to the semi-finals. The journey to World Cup victory started with the selection of Kapil Dev as captain. The talent and skill of Kapil as a player was never in doubt, but to make him the captain?! The man couldn’t even speak a sentence of English correctly. Even though most of India watched cricket, it was still represented by the elite and the rich. It was sacrilege to give the reins of captaincy to a rustic Jat, especially to play, of all the countries, in England.

The second good decision that the selectors made was to select a team that would be more effective in English conditions. This playing 11 had seven players who could bat and bowl, perhaps the first and only time. It was also the first time the playing 11 had only one spinner in Kirti Azad or Ravi Shastri.

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The part that captured people’s imagination was how Kapil Dev, the leader, shows up in the movie. I was never a big fan of Kapil Dev the captain, because of the inherent bias that a non-English speaking person cannot be a true leader. The movie reminded me how wrong I was. Kapil initially attempts to speak in English but quickly realizes that language is only a means. If he needs to connect with his team, he needs to connect personally and emotionally. That part in the movie where he is upset with Roger Binny for not trying hard enough stands out. He first complains loudly in Hindi to the coach. Still, He quickly realizes that Binny didn’t understand Hindi, so he switched to his broken English. The idea was to get the message across, which he effectively did, as shown later in the movie.

Another instance where Kapil, the leader, stood out was when he told Balwinder Sandhu that he was sorry to hear about his engagement breakup. Still, the country came first, and he needed to perform on the field. Instances and dialogs like these reminded folks of that victory which united the country (albeit temporarily). It had given all of us so much joy, pride, and confidence that we could achieve anything. Whether that victory was the turning point, Rajiv Gandhi’s introduction of computer studies as a college course, or the economic reforms that followed, we will not know. But in my view, it was all of the above, starting with the 1983 victory.

When the movie ended, I was happy for Kapil Dev, the man, the leader. Undoubtedly, he is the greatest all-rounder India has ever produced in cricket. However, his reputation as a person was tarnished post his retirement, especially after the false allegations of match-fixing against him by Manoj Prabhakar and, to some extent, the failed ICL experimentation. Hopefully, this movie helped erase some of that bad memory.

Nimish Singh lives in Fremont, California, and has made Silicon Valley his home for the last 27 years. He is an engineering executive in a leading Cybersecurity company. An avid reader and writer, Nimish is actively involved in local theater as a playwright and songwriter.

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