November 24, 1993. Eden Gardens, Calcutta. The first semi-final of the Hero Cup: India vs South Africa. Chasing 196, South Africa needs six runs from the last over. The Indian skipper, Mohammad Azharuddin, throws the ball to someone who’s primarily known for his batting: Sachin Tendulkar. He keeps his cool; he keeps it straight. His fingers spin magic and we win the match by two runs. India moves into the finals, and I’ve fallen in love. I think it is love. Because I’m too young to understand its true import: I’ve barely learnt how to read and write. But whatever it is, it is beautiful. Something inside me has stirred, changed and moved.
To be a Tendulkar fan in the ’90s felt less like a choice, more like a moral duty – a default setting. Because how could you not? How could that cover drive executed with so little fuss, as if the man was posing for a photoshoot, not floor any aesthete? Or, for that matter, that straight drive – where he, basking in silent arrogance, didn’t even bother to run? Or that hard flash over point? Or that paddle sweep? Or that upper-cut over slips? Or that slog sweep over mid-wicket? And this list isn’t even complete. You didn’t have to understand cricket to love Tendulkar, for he wasn’t just a sportsman, a cricket player: he was an artist.
So when a film based on his life, Sachin: A Billion Dreams, made news, I should have been happy. But I was, in fact, scared. Because much had happened between 1993 and 2017. Or, more precisely, between April 2011 (India winning the World Cup) and November 2013 (his retirement). After a point, not long after the World Cup win, it seemed Tendulkar was playing just for his 100th ton and when it came, on a flat track against Bangladesh at an awful strike rate, it cost us the match. Then, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) cancelled the South African tour and called West Indies home for his farewell series, so he could play his last test match in Mumbai: an undignified move that reeked of bullying. Then, his closeness to Mukesh Ambani and Bal Thackeray. Moreover, watching him bat in his final years had stopped giving me joy; it was painful to see him struggle against lesser bowlers. Besides, the cynicism and awareness of the present had cast new light on the past: Why did he not speak out during the match fixing controversy? In fact, why did he not take a stand on nearly anything throughout his career? Why was he so fixated on being the good guy?
More vitally, the film looked hagiographic and repetitive. We grew up on his batting. We saw all the matches, we knew all the stats, we knew all the anecdotes. When you’ve seen someone’s life unfold for nearly two-and-a-half decades, been familiar with its twists and turns, loved it for the most part, been disappointed by its dénouement, so much so that it only elicits indifference – in such a scenario of information overload, what new can a film offer?
Sachin: A Billion Dreams, directed by James Erskine, begins in 1979 Bandra, chronicling Tendulkar’s early years. Shot in a docu-fiction style (a blend of documentary and fiction), this segment recreates Tendulkar’s childhood through actors and scenes intercut with interviews of his family members. The film then jumps a few years, introducing a key character in his life, coach Ramakant Achrekar. We learn that when Tendulkar first batted in Shivaji Park, where Achrekar used to coach, he got out quickly. His brother and mentor, Ajit, understood why. Achrekar was looking at Tendulkar and the boy got nervous. Ajit requested the coach to get busy elsewhere and Tendulkar, freed from the burden of expectations, played freely. Maybe there’s a lesson in there for many unrelenting parents and teachers. We also find out, via an endearing little scene, that after practice, his aunt would bowl short-pitched deliveries at him. Tendulkar credits that as the reason for his strong back-foot defence. Impressively researched, Sachin: A Billion Dreams manages to get enough stories about Tendulkar that are not part of the popular folklore. The film, however, comes into its own when it sheds the pretence of being docu-fiction and unfolds more naturally, like a documentary, with Tendulkar breaking the fourth wall and directly addressing the audience.
That portion in the film is post-1989 (when Tendulkar made his international debut). And it is this part – the first among the many – that puts your emotional response to the film in perspective. It is Tendulkar’s first international series. He is 16, up against Pakistan in Pakistan. A side whose fast bowlers breathe fire: Imran Khan, Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis. Tendulkar gets out cheaply in the first innings. In the second innings, he gets hit on the nose and falls on the ground. His nose is broken, emitting blood. Anyone else would have walked off the ground, and there would have been no shame in it. But Tendulkar, while being attended by the team’s physiotherapist, yells, “Main khelega (I’ll play)!” He goes on to make 57 and India saves the match. Nearly every Tendulkar fan knows this story by heart, for it’s quite common. And yet, watching it on the big screen – brought to life via footage from the India-Pakistan series and bytes from Akram, Navjot Singh Sidhu and Tendulkar himself, who says this incident made him “fearless” – feels like a tryst with the adrenaline rush. This bit isn’t particularly marked by accomplished filmmaking, but it is extremely affecting by its very nature: a true origin story of an all-time cricketing great.
The film doesn’t hesitate to talk about the uncomfortable aspects of his career, too. His lean period as a captain, for instance, where, according to Tendulkar, “The team wasn’t playing as a unit.” This portion also dwells on the strained equations between him and Azharuddin. Here, disappointment is writ large upon Tendulkar’s face when he, talking about his sacking, says, “I wasn’t even informed by phone.” Tendulkar doesn’t hold back on Greg Chappell’s stint as the coach, too, saying how he was unfit to guide the team. Or that period in the mid-aughts when he, beset by a slump in form, contemplated resigning. But, more importantly, the film includes the most contentious part of his career (which I thought it would completely avoid): the match-fixing scandal. Elaborating on it, Tendulkar says, “People say why did he keep quiet? But how could I say anything if I wasn’t 100% sure?” It’s really difficult, even for the devotees of Tendulkar, to buy that claim. Sure, no Indian cricketer spoke about the scandal, but no one was bestowed the status of ‘God’ either. No one is perfect and there’s no one history; its different versions are produced by different points of view. And only a select few get to present their version; Tendulkar is one of the luckier ones. In that case, this film attempts the impossible: to make Tendulkar even more likeable than he ever was – an exercise that’s both monotonous and pointless.
It’s heartening, though, to know that Erskine’s film is not, for the most part, a hagiographic portrait – barring a superfluous segment towards the end, where diverse personalities such as Aamir Khan, Narendra Modi and Brian Lara hold forth on his greatness. Besides, there’s enough in the film for cricket nerds. Tendulkar opens up about his approach to the game: how he tackled Shane Warne in the 1998 India-Australia series; how he likes his bats, gloves, and pads to be designed; how he takes care of them. There are parts that make Tendulkar look humane, parts that look both comical and heartfelt: him fooling around with his children, recounting his romance with his wife Anjali, celebrating with his teammates in the dressing room.
But, above all, beyond the merits or the lack of them, it’s nearly impossible to be objective about this film. Because Tendulkar, for me and for million others, wasn’t just a player, he was our childhood. He was our first love, our first heartbreak. He was our first victory, our first loss. He was our first hope, our only hope. How do you critique your own childhood? Reviewing a film on his life is a bit like commenting on the architectural merits of my first home: I can try, but I’ll miss the point. Granted, he’s not the same Tendulkar as he used to be, but memories are unfettered and illogical, looking for ways to only serve themselves. Whenever the film showed footage of a vintage Tendulkar innings, everything ceased to matter – I was transported back in time to my days of being a joyous love-struck teenager.
During the interval, as I was buying coffee, the man at the counter asked, “How is the movie so far?” This had never happened in my movie-watching experience. But then not every film is about an experience in itself. “It’s quite decent,” I said. “I’m not interested in cricket, but I’d always see Tendulkar bat,” he said, handing me a cup of coffee. We exchanged smiles. If India were torn paper, Tendulkar was the glue.