'Sachin: A Billion Dreams' Is an Uncritical Deification of Tendulkar

In the smoothly manufactured narrative of the 44-year-old cricketer's life, there was no room to explore the personal tensions that may have existed.

It is a special life that fulfils every design of yours. Few chance occurrences take place, none of them powerful enough to turn you away from destiny. Presumably, this is a boon for a select few. Sachin Tendulkar was one of them. He believed in the plans he had set for himself and ran after them.

Of course, everything he achieved in his professional life turned out to have grand implications. The numbers told the story of Tendulkar’s excellence. The prizes and matches won only backed up the belief that the man from Mumbai was a rare presence in cricket. He broke new ground and scaled unprecedented heights.

This is the story that James Erskine’s Sachin: A Billion Dreams tells us about Tendulkar. But it does not stop there. Tendulkar is not just a great cricketer – he is a do-gooder too. The moral obligations he sets for himself are realised because that is what he intends to do.

Of course, there is no reason to believe otherwise. For Tendulkar details his own story. He directs the narrative; even others who appear on the screen say things in his voice. The celebratory tone of the film comes from Sachin Tendulkar. It is a vanity project, just like other films on Indian cricketers have been in the past year.

Azhar and MS Dhoni: The Untold Story had already told us that popular cinema is not going to be the one to take a scrutinising look at India’s cricketing heroes. One wonders if the possibility even exists. Mohammad Azharuddin had an integral role to play in the making of Azhar while Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s biopic was bankrolled by his manager Arun Pandey, with the cricketer pocketing a massive sum as part of the exercise.

No wonder, then, that Azhar tried to convince us that the 2000 match-fixing scandal was a hoax while Dhoni conveniently sidestepped his IPL career, which would have raised difficult questions about his suspended franchise Chennai Super Kings. Sachin: A Billion Dreams sustains the trend.

Tendulkar, like in the past, chose to not discuss the 2000 match-fixing scandal because he was not a “100% sure”. Further, there was absolutely no mention of the other episodes that had caused much hand-wringing. The ball-tampering incident from the 2001 tour of South Africa was brushed off from the account of his life. So was the ‘Monkeygate’ in Australia seven years later, which could have turned unfavourably for Harbhajan Singh if not for Tendulkar’s testimony.

But even when one overlooks the omissions, what is left on the screen does not engage the discerning mind. Erskine fails to probe the conflicts and the hues of one’s personality that make the story of any sportsperson enriching. The problem with promoting Tendulkar’s manicured message is that there is no room for alternative views about him. Sachin is the message.

In the weeks leading up to the release of this film, Tendulkar was keen to stress that people will learn more about him. If pandering to clichés about his special status in Indian society was supposed to do that, it obviously failed. Familiar tales were recounted yet again. But what of the new ones? One gets a sneak-peek into his private life but is it a revelation that Tendulkar shares a loving relationship with his family?

Even the depiction of his moments with friends and family leaves one confused. Archival footage is mixed with scenes shot for the film’s purpose. If Tendulkar can still have a great time with his friends, what are we supposed to deduce from that? It only serves to belabour the questionable point that the cricketer is a special person, too.

It can certainly be embarrassing, if not improper, if you have to emphasise your inherent goodness. It feels frankly inauthentic in a film that seeks to paint the protagonist in the most positive of shades. There is much to say for Tendulkar’s greatness as a cricketer. But to present him as a good son, husband and father is to place him on the pedestal of sainthood. Tendulkar may not explicitly claim such ambitions but I walked away from the film with the suspicion that he is madly in love with himself.

The people around him also seemed to have bought the idea that their duty was to support the cricketer’s ambitions. So, the film tiptoes around Tendulkar’s view that either he or his wife Anjali should sacrifice their career for the family. (Of course, he did not expect to hang up his own boots.)

But in the smoothly manufactured narrative of the 44-year-old’s life, there was no room to explore the personal tensions that may have existed. The regard for Tendulkar’s wisdom was paramount and only an anodyne perspective could be offered.

This is where one would expect director Erskine to construct a multi-layered narrative within the personal history. But the film succumbs to faults that have dogged the director’s previous works. Erskine’s romantic notions about sport come in the way. While sport may bring people together, an inherent belief in its moral good is a throwback to the civilising missions of the British Empire. Additionally, Erskine has been unable to lend adequate historical depth to his latest work. His films, One Night in Turin and Shooting for Socrates, suffered from a similar weakness.

In fact, in the Tendulkar biopic, what passes for a sense of history only obscures the picture. We are offered reminders of important moments in independent India’s past, from Jawaharlal Nehru’s ‘Tryst with Destiny’ speech to missile tests. Their purpose remains unclear – except to project an element of seriousness through the film. The opportunity to examine the rise of Tendulkar’s brand value in the post-liberalisation economy is passed up, too, with only a vague analysis presented to the viewer. It is a film that tries to be part-documentary and part-hagiography. The result is an empty exertion.

At the same time, the narrative propagated by the film makes one thing abundantly clear: Tendulkar’s undying commitment to the nation. Throughout his career, even at instances where he doubted whether he should captain the Indian side, the ‘Master Blaster’ was guided by a sense of duty towards his country. Anything that came in Tendulkar’s way of doing well for India was not tolerated lightly. So when he discusses Greg Chappell’s tenure as the Indian team’s coach, the Australian is cast in a villainous role. Chappell is firmly blamed for the 2007 World Cup debacle, when India could not graduate from the preliminary stage. He is, after all, an easy scapegoat. Manichaeism is very much alive in Tendulkar’s worldview. There is little room for nuance.

But it needs to be asked whether the commitment to the nation is inscrutable. Much has been said about Tendulkar’s continued absence from the Rajya Sabha. Not enough attention has been given to his meeting with defence minister Manohar Parrikar last year, after the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) found his friend’s holiday resort to be in breach of regulations. It remains to be seen whether the MP made a successful case after cutting his trip in Australia short for this important task.

Of course, this was not the only time the recipient of the Bharat Ratna attempted to take advantage of his privilege. Back in 2003, Tendulkar sought an import duty waiver for the Ferrari he received as a gift from his sponsor, Fiat. Once the NDA government, which was in power then, amended the law to benefit him, Tendulkar duly got himself a relief of another Rs 15 lakh that he would have had to pay for the car’s road-worthiness test. The total waived-off amount of Rs 1.28 crore was hardly outside the cricketer’s means and it certainly does not go well with the image of a man who dearly loves his country. It also shows Tendulkar in a distanced place from his middle-class beginnings, despite the film’s insistence that he remains a rooted individual.

While films on cricket in India are rare – and those dealing with cricketers rarer – they are an easy sell in a country where Tendulkar’s admirers are spread far and wide. Even the prime minister was a happy host (below) to the cricketer as he carried his promotional duties nationwide. But it does seem remarkable that the cricketer went to extreme lengths for spreading the word about his film. In popular terms, he is often equated to a ‘god’. Indeed, even in the film about Dhoni’s life, a young Dhoni insists that his mother buy him a Tendulkar poster seen hanging on a wall next to Hindu deities. His mother fails to recognise the legendary batsman and asks in a confused tone, “Which god is he?”

For the millions who followed his career closely, that is not a question worth asking. They are well-versed with Tendulkar’s storied career. Unfortunately, his biopic recounts familiar anecdotes in a new medium but with the rough edges intact. In fact, it tries hard to tell us why Tendulkar is… well, a great human being. And if it is that hard to make the case, maybe you should reflect upon it.

It may be that playing the game for over two decades has affected Tendulkar in much the same way his peers have been. His unquestioning acceptance of the codes and rituals that guide an elite sportsman seemingly have convinced him that he had undertaken a task like no other, inculcating in him a belief that his responsibilities extended beyond the cricket field. On multiple occasions in the film, Tendulkar spoke about his duties towards the nation. If you imbibe the popular narratives, it is difficult for you to step outside them and impede the delusion wrought by a blinkered worldview. Tendulkar, like many others, has failed to look beyond common assumptions about him and cricket in India. Maybe he is not so special after all.

Priyansh is a freelance writer in New Delhi. He tweets @GarrulousBoy.

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