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Nagesh Kukunoor’s short filmography includes some of the most quirky, offbeat, and delightful films (Hyderabad Blues, 3 Deewarein, Rockford). As a perennial outsider to the Mumbai-based Hindi film dominion (he lived in the United States before repatriating to India), Kukunoor is unrestrained by a conventional Hindi filmmaker’s mentality. With the upbeat Iqbal, which he wrote and directed (Subhash Ghai produced), Kukunoor again taps into the same light, populist undercurrent that made his Hyderabad Blues such a marvelous debut entry in 1998.
Any dissection of modern Indian life would be incomplete without pausing to catch up on the latest news from the cricket world. Like Lagaan did so successfully, Iqbal uses what is probably the second most popular sport in the world (after soccer) to carve up a fairly tale about an easy-to-root-for underdog who dreams of leaving a mark on the cricket pitch. That the titular Iqbal (Talpade) is deaf and mute and worships at a secret shrine dedicated to cricket greats from around the world is but a footnote. (In their devotion to the sport, many cricket fans display the same painted-bodies, cult-like following that many Americans have for football.)
Iqbal is faced with a father who opposes the sport (one can just hear the writer thinking, “You oppose cricket, and the terrorists win!”) and supported by his younger sister Khadija (Prasad delights in this role) and devoted mother (Lonkar). On a pretense of taking the family water buffaloes grazing, he secretly spies on a cricket team that practices at a pitch near his house. Recruited by that team’s politically connected coach (domed-top Karnad relishes his silk-tongue-seedy-deeds role), Iqbal questions if his quest may be better served by teaming up with the village drunk Mohit (Shah’s alcoholic hobo on the mend is remarkably carefree), who may have a cricket trick or two up his stained sleeve.
The story is told at two levels: the obvious text has Iqbal’s Cinderella-like search for the prince (with state- and possible national-level talent scouts), who come bearing perfect-sized glass slippers (or a pair of high-end, customized Nikes in this case) to attend the king’s ball (the big game on national television). There is also a subtler undertow of the down-and-out Mohit unearthing a latent desire for moral and professional redemption. Kukunoor seamlessly weaves together both parts.
Kukunoor’s stories usually dwell on the outsider struggling to fit in. This sentiment resonates richly for both Indian expat psyches trying to fit into their adopted new homes as well as native Indians looking for a sense of order in a nation under rapid-fire transformation. If works like Iqbal result from Kukunoor being an outsider one hopes he forever remains a misfit.
Aniruddh Chawda writes from Wisconsin, on America’s north coast.