At the start of director Abhishek Kapoor’s film, a bunch of athletes is introduced to us, one after the other, with a voice-over in the background telling us about their names and their achievements. The screen slowly pans out and we realize the voice is actually that of Govind (Rajkummar Rao), and this is a pitch for his Sports academy (Sabarmati Sports Club). He ends the presentation with a quick mention of a potential international debutant in cricket, named Ali, albeit without any visuals.
As the story rewinds to 10 years earlier, we, and Ishaan, (the second protagonist of the three lead characters, played by Sushant Singh) first notice Ali from his back after the latter “catches” a ball whacked by Ali beyond the imaginary boundary in the crowded playgrounds. Ishaan asks a boy who the batsman is; the boy mentions he is someone from “outside their territory”. A few moments later, Ali throws a challenge to Ishaan, still a stranger to him. It is a win-all, lose-all challenge with a container of marbles at stake.
The scene quickly shifts the focus to the relationship between Ishaan and Ali, who are now tutor and disciple at the Sabarmati Sports Academy, still at its nascent stage. It takes a while for either of them to earn the other’s trust, and these scenes are nicely staged. Ali, still a boy, has his loyalty divided between the game of bat and ball and the one with marbles. Ishaan fumes at his commitment and chases him away from a practice session. In another scene, he storms into a Math class being instructed by Govind and teaches Ali the importance of stroking on the off-side. Ali scratches his head. Why? He is a natural, no? He doesn’t think too much when batting and gives the ball a thump the only way he knows. But Ishaan looks beyond this love-hate relationship with Ali and sees a future in him that no one else does.
Ishaan, the fearless warrior that he is, doesn’t bat an eyelid before breaking the headlight of an SUV, as a reprimand for a driver honking during the viewing of a cricket match; he likes to hold a gun that scares people nearby; and towards the end, he does not fear heading to Ali’s den for a cricket match the next day. But even the boldest have a weak moment, and Kapoor captures this beautifully in a short conversation on the phone between Govind and Ishaan, when the latter requests him to come over while expressing a “strange feeling of fear”.
The movie itself isn’t only about this tutor-disciple relationship. There is another delicious teacher-student relationship featuring Govind and Ishaan’s sister Vidya (played by Amrita Puri). Vidya woos him during Govind’s math tuition classes as he tries his best to wiggle out.
The bigger problem for Govind though is the sports club he has set up with Ishaan and Omi (Amit Sadh). They are struggling to break even but are already dreaming of another facility in the city inside a mall. In the hope of making it big someday, they double-loan themselves while moving to the new mall. But their dreams are crushed when a natural calamity strikes one day. With everyone rushing for shelter, Govind instead runs barefoot to the mall to find what remains of the devastation. With such a feverish build-up to the interval, we look forward to how the story would shape up in the second half.
But from a fictional account this far, Kapoor shifts focus entirely to real-life happenings in 2001-2002. The principal characters take a back seat, while the supporting characters suddenly hog the limelight. There is generous screen space for Omi’s uncle, Bittu, the banker for the trio’s sports club in the first half, who unleashes his darker side. Omi himself, shown as a man of fewer words than others, is reduced to becoming a caricature towards the end.
All the subtleties and nuances that made the first half memorable are replaced by in-your-face moments that make you squirm in your seat towards the end. Even the 2001 India-Australia series, of which the second test match is covered with sufficient detail, appears to be shoe-horned into the plot without any major reason. They do create a feeling of nostalgia in the cricket lovers inside us, but what business does it have in a movie about the dreams and aspirations of three young men?
I wondered why Kapoor didn’t switch off the distractions to the plot with the material in his hand.
Anuj Chakrapani loves cinema and believes movies, like other forms of art, is open to interpretation. And when you begin to interpret, you realize that the parts are more than the sum. Adopting a deconstructionist approach, he tries not to rate movies as “good” or “bad”, instead choosing to capture what he carries away from watching them. Anuj lives in the SF Bay Area and works for a large technology company.