The allegations of match-fixing that erupted in the world of cricket in the last decade also implicated a handful of names from South Asian international test teams from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and India. The implication of Mohammad Azharuddin, the famed Indian cricket team captain at the time, shocked fans of Indian cricket all over the globe. In D’Souza’s Azhar, a semi-fictionalized re-tooling of real life news stories about the ensuing scandal, dramatic license is the name of the real game. Even though D’Souza gazes on the story through rose-tinted field binoculars, there is sufficient astute insight into the life of both, the gifted player, and his conflicted inner persona, to keep the viewer hooked.
The breaking story of possible match-rigging that ensnared Azharuddin, Azhar for short, pointed to his possible links with some high profile London bookies. As if a famous cricket player and match-fixing in the same sentence were not enough to keep the story in the front lines, Azharuddin being romantically linked with budding movie star Sangeeta (Tridev) Bijlani was like kerosene to a blazing hot news story. For the tabloids, the seemingly unending drip of supposedly lurid corruption details—including secret recordings, leaked conversations and possible taints from a virtual who’s who of international cricket—promised a sensational bonanza.
Sailing the currents between fact and fiction—not to mention contractual blessings from the real life Azharuddin himself—writer Rajat Arora’s story follows large touch points in Azhar’s life, from his Andhra Pradesh childhood to his two wives and his rise to the pinnacle of his profession. Even though there are re-enactments of supposed after hour hush-hush deals in locker rooms, where narrative is strongest is the complex relationship Azharuddin had with the two women in his life, his arranged-marriage wife Naureen (Desai) and the more showy fling with Bijlani (Fakhri). True to his profession, Azharuddin maintains a secular outlook and, mercifully, only plays the “Muslim card” against the on-field taunts from an overwhelmingly Muslim team from Pakistan.
The highly enterprising mother-daughter producer team of Shobha Kapoor and Ekta Kapoor, the wife and daughter, respectively, of veteran actor Jeetendra, keenly allow elbow room for the two women in Azhar’s life—the dutiful (and beautiful) homemaker Naureen and the outgoing (and beautiful) movie star. Their script voices reveal unexpected vulnerabilities to the double-edged dangers of being at both the mercy and demands of a professional athlete. Desai as Naureen nails the reticent homemaker while Fakhri’s Bijlani is a dynamic charmer whose glitzy exterior shields a much softer core.
There is also strong performance from Dutta as Meera, a smart, well-coiffed and level-headed London-based attorney called in by the prosecution. Meera’s non-linear approach to the case—she is an avid fan of Azharuddin the cricket players even as she sticks to her legal briefs intent on proving his guilt in court—adds a delicious twist to what would otherwise be a clear cut case of finger-pointing from behind-the-scenes players in test cricket.
Hashmi is often dismissed as a performer most notorious for his onscreen lip-locks in an industry where kissing is still a weakest-link taboo. In a pleasant turn, Hashmi finesses the title role. His Azhar is fond of luxury—which gives ammo to his corruption-obsessed courtroom opponents. He is insecure—mostly about upstarts like a then-unknown rookie named Sachin Tendulkar making inroads on the scoreboard. The lifetime ban of Azhar from his beloved sport looms like a gauntlet that would shatter his dreams and his future for sure. Most of all, he is a gifted athlete not completely prepared for the pressures of idol worship and celebrity culture in a cricket-crazed nation.
The retro-1989 look to Rakesh Singh’s cinematography gives the sets a time-stamped yet fresh appeal while the brimming, ethnically vibrant setting in Hyderabad has whiffs of exotic biryani practically permeating the cinema hall.
The setting, meanwhile, accentuates the noteworthy ensemble soundtrack, especially Arijit Singh’s “Itni Si Baat Hai” and Armaan Malik’s “Bol Do Na Zara” as tandem heart felt tunes with slow rhyme and groove. While the performers truly gel, these ancillary elements also give D’Souza’s movie added pitch both on and off the field.
Globe trekker, aesthete, photographer, ski bum, film buff, and commentator, Aniruddh Chawda writes from Milwaukee