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Review: Neeraj Pandey’s MS Dhoni – The Untold Story

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The first time it is suggested that Mahendra Singh Dhoni try his hand at cricket, he breaks into that grin we know so well. What good is a sport with such small balls, he laughs to a schoolmate, shrugging off the idea. A pre-teen boy playing football at the time, goalkeeping is more his thing — until, that is, the cricket coach wonders if he fears the hard red ball.

He doesn’t.

Neeraj Pandey’s Mahender Singh Dhoni: The Untold Story is an odd biopic, a rousing rags-to-riches story that happens also to be a hagiographical picture of a flawless protagonist. Producing a film about oneself is something we would expect more from Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Ji Insaan than from a sportsperson, and this cricketer-endorsed version of the Dhoni story steps forward with singular intent: to deify its already-deified hero. (Any rating for this film, thus, must be accompanied by an asterisk — or, given the amount of undisguised product placement, a sponsor logo.)

This celebration, however, it accomplishes rather effectively. Pandey focusses on the early, raw Dhoni years far more than he does on the more unseemly later dotted with scandal and shade, and while all this gives us is a rags-to-riches story about a sincere young man destined to win and born to lead, it is still an engaging and passionate enough tale to fill our cricket-partial stomachs, one we can nod happily along to. The film doesn’t challenge our perception as much as amiably pat it into place, yet — thanks largely to a remarkably committed performance by the leading man — the film scores like a champ.

It feels at times like we’re watching a highlights package of a game we’ve already watched and loved, but sometimes that is satisfying enough.

The film opens with the 2011 World Cup. We see the back of the captain’s head, as he, with his trademark Nadal-esque sleevelessness, watches a wicket fall and pulls his Number Seven jersey on, choosing imperiously to take charge instead of letting the padded-up batter walk out to play. We all know what happened next, an unbelievably timed innings that climaxed with a shot — one shot I wrote an essay about — that many of us can never forget.

Pandey smartly pays more attention to what came before any of us were watching. To the young boy begging his mother for a Sachin Tendulkar poster. To the puritan annoyed at a friend drinking beer. To the thinker who calculates the time in which he needs to finish an exam in order to reach a cricket game. Walking out to join a more experienced batsman with a steep target on the board, Dhoni asks if the other guy can do it if he gives him the strike. The batsman says he’ll try. “If it has to be tried, I might as well try it myself,” says Dhoni, full of pluck and strokeplay.

Playing one of the most famous men in the country, Sushant Singh Rajput doesn’t put a foot wrong. Literally. Right from that walk, his body language as Dhoni is immaculate, and he nails everything: the swagger, the trademark shots, the oddly effete nail-biting manner. These slavish Dhoni imitations are superlative enough, but Rajput — an accomplished and restrained performer — fleshes out this character of superhuman perfection and turns him into someone real, someone worth believing in and cheering for.

The actor makes us believe in Dhoni’s hunger, in his earnestness, in the way he embraces responsibility — in an inversion of the superhero cliché, Dhoni appears to have realised that taking on great responsibility will lead him to greater power.

The most pleasant aspect of the film is the way it shows friends and family rally around Dhoni and believe unflinchingly in their boy. Set in Ranchi — with pink chart-paper school projects on blue and green walls, rubbing shoulders with religious imagery and Sportstar posters — the film is about the tribe of believers it takes to lift any of us truly high. Dhoni’s family, his coach, his friends, his teammates… He might not have arrived yet, but he travels with a pack of supporters, at times a motorcycled convoy. A Dhontourage, if I may.

The film brilliantly shows these family members and friends watch Dhoni bat on television, sitting superstitiously in the same positions each time, developing their own match rituals, and growling angrily each time Dhoni gets out, full of suggestions about what he should have done instead — because of course they know better. It is exactly how too many of us watch cricket, too involved, too irrational, too all-knowing, and, with this masterstroke, Dhoni the film makes us feel like the family of Dhoni the man.

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The film gives us many moments of Dhoni rising to the occasion — underscored by brief montages of hapless, helpless bowlers —  but too few of Dhoni struggling. It is as if batting came too naturally and effortlessly to him. Tragically, we don’t get to watch him, the canniest and most boldly strategic captain we’ve had, plot out any of his unconventionally sharp decisions. There are two romances — with well-cast girls — but, like the poor songs, these hamper the narrative and slow it down. It is only Rajput’s valiant performance that keeps us believing — especially as he stands in front of a mirror and self-consciously practices precisely how wide his grin needs to be.

In a bright move, the film uses a lot of actual television footage, ForrestGumping Rajput’s face on Dhoni’s body and letting him advise Lakshmipathy Balaji and celebrate with Harbhajan Singh instead of casting lookalikes for these parts we know so well. The first time we see Sachin Tendulkar, for example, the film gives him what is sometimes (and fittingly) referred to as God’s View, turning the narrative camera into the Sachin character and letting Dhoni walk up to him for an autograph. It’s quite a moment.

That, in fact, is part of a greater moment, a scene where a pretty girl meets Dhoni on a flight and — while awestruck by other cricketers — thinks nothing of MS, who she doesn’t yet know. It is a fleeting scene but teases the idea of a truly good film. We could have had something special, something close to Rush, a proper sports film with conflict and heart and internal struggle. Rajput steps forward and tonks it out of the park, but it would mean much more if this wasn’t an exhibition match on a conveniently doctored pitch.

Rating: 3.5 stars

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First published Rediff, September 30, 2016

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Review: Tony D’Souza’s Azhar

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When news of the match-fixing scandal broke, my very first thought was for Mohammad Azharuddin’s wrists.

The heartbreak was unbelievable, and echoes of that particular ache still remain. Believe the hyperbole. Cricket was tantamount to religion back in the untainted day, and the idea that some of our heroes were thieves was a crushing one, one the sport never quite bounced back from. It was at this point, before I pored over salacious transcripts of sting operations and read up a CBI report as if my graduation depended on it, that I wondered what would happen to those sublime wrists, wrists that carved poetry across the fields, and what handcuffs would do to them.

For, to naive teenaged me, it was unthinkable that Azhar not be jailed. Not merely banned and disgraced but imprisoned, for fraud and perjury and whatever they could throw at him, because what Azhar did was unforgivable. As the transcripts came out and the probes went deeper, it became clear that Azhar, with those flourishing wrists weighed down by designer watches, had fixed matches, had taken money, and had confessed to doing so in his own words, on tape and later in writing — I remember reading a long, rambling fax he had handwritten and sent to then-wife Sangeeta Bijlani. It was sickening, and Azhar — with a striking life that saw him go from rags to riches, captain to crud — became a villain.

This is the kind of story that deserves a cinematic telling, one of the few sports biopics that genuinely deserves to be made. Except, as Tony D’Souza’s new film hastens desperately to say at the start of the film called Azhar, this is “not a biopic.” The wordy disclaimer says something to the effect of the film being a work of entertainment based around facts about a person’s life, which sounds to me like an excuse to mock someone. Alas, there is no such irreverence — or intelligence — to be found in the storytelling here, and the predictable template the film follows is efficient, but dull.

The Bollywood biopic is an emerging genre that can already be labelled lazy, because of the way the films lean on flattery. Forced to gain the subject’s approval, the films end up glorifying the subject well beyond the truth. Greys are glossed over, achievements are amped up, and a deafening background score thuds through to highlight moments the audience already knows.

Despite all that, the story of Mohammad Azharuddin is a ripper. How did he first want to play cricket? Which batsmen did he look up to? What made him start relying on his wrists? When, indeed, did he realise their invincibility? What made him fall for Salman Khan’s ex-girlfriend? How financially strapped was his family and how did money change their lives? What was he like when shooting Pepsi commercials? Where did the wristwatch fascination come from? What did he think of emerging Sachin Tendulkar? How did he feel when the scandal broke? Who did he feel got away with it?

There is a lot to say even if a film wants to take Azhar’s side. Unfortunately, D’Souza and writer Rajat Arora avoid all of the aforementioned questions and choose instead to continually mire the narrative in obvious cliché. Even if the film starts off snappy enough, the contents are old hat. A cricketer is told by his grandfather that he should play a hundred test matches, and grandpa — who lies on his deathbed while, for some reason, clutching a cricket bat — gives him Uncle Ben like advice that is played back over and over again, even two scenes later. Meanwhile the young boy just wants to play, but distractions keep popping up. Even though he doesn’t want to have an extramarital affair, Poor Azza finds himself in one. Even though he doesn’t want to sell India out to a bookie, Poor Azza ends up doing that.

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Ridiculous as it is, this Poor Azza approach actually works for a fair chunk of the film’s running time because of the sincerity Emraan Hashmi brings to the table. He isn’t a great mimic — that dopey Azhar head nod, the slumping shoulders, the microphone mutterings — show up from time to time but remain inconsistent, but the actor is almost touchingly honest. Which is saying a lot considering he’s made to spout so much malarkey his name might as well be Mohammad Aphorism.

He — and Kunal Roy Kapoor, who plays a fumbling lawyer endearingly — are the best things in this film, but the competition isn’t at all cutthroat. Nargis Fakhri looks mad weird as a hysterically sobbing Bijlani, while Prachi Desai, as Azhar’s first wife Naureen, is cloyingly saccharine and straight out of a television soap. (This film is a Balaji production, which explains a lot.)

The story is told, as I said, with more efficiency than we’re used to, at least over the brisk first half. With the exception of unbelievably juvenile courtroom scenes, the film motors along. There are even some fun scenes, either involving an amusing Gautam Gulati — a swaggery Ravi Shastri caricature — or Hashmi himself, manfully but awkwardly throwing one hand into his pocket with a commitment that would, more than Azhar himself, make Mohnish Bahl and Alanis Morissette proud. There is one moment in the film that even gave me goosepimples, but, to be fair, the words “Azhar takes a one-handed catch” would do that irrespective of visual or typeface. Man, what a fielder. (We don’t see nearly enough of that in this film either. Would it have killed them to show us Azza alone on the field after dusk, practising hitting the stumps with those one-handed throws like only he could? Sigh. Such a wasted chance, this film.)

In the second half, as the facts become obscured and the storyline becomes contrived, the film becomes an utter drag. As Fakhri enters the film and the feeble songs increase in frequency, the film turns into something so lifeless you could call it Azerbaijan.

And then comes the death blow: With no apparent room for ambiguity, the film exonerates Poor Azhar not merely as Poor Azhar but — stupefyingly — as a man who took bribes from bookies in order to keep the rest of his team clean. Ugh. This is the bit that hurts most. This appalling justification is an unforgivably offensive conceit, and I’m furious just thinking about it now, as I type.

There is a scene involving Azhar’s famously turned-up collar, where his wife tells him she likes it folded traditionally, like a gentleman, and she asks him to fix it. He thinks of Sangeeta who likes it raised, like a cocksure superstar, and reluctantly fixes it. It’s a fine idea and could have been a strong moment, except the collar didn’t look too raised at the head of the scene, or too mellowed afterward. It looks the same and the scene plays out, like this film, entirely ineffectual.

As a work of fan-fiction, Azhar is a mostly watchable film with a solid lead, but falls far short of being either entertaining, insightful, or worthy of recommendation. Hashmi and D’Souza try hard, and their effort shows. I just wish I could have said the boys played well.

Rating: 1.5 stars

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First published Rediff, May 13, 2016

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Review: Amole Gupte’s Hawaa Hawaai

hh1It is a rare and wondrous thing when students genuinely admire a teacher.

I remember sniggering cruelly many years ago when my kid brother, extolling the virtues of one of those self-aggrandising heads of tuition institutes, resolutely referred to him as “Sir Vipin” instead of “Vipin Sir,” convinced of his greatness and boardexam-beating power. Growing up, we’re naturally disposed unfavourably toward teachers, but the few who shine through and make us believe also win us over completely. Merely being their student becomes a point of young pride, and we begin thus to look to them for perfection, unreasonably expecting flawlessness and answers to everything.

It’s stunning, faith. And this is the wide-eyed keenness Amole Gupte captures so well in Hawaa Hawaai, where a skating-instructor is merrily deified by his adoring children, hoisted by them onto a rockstar-high pedestal. “Lucky Sir, Lucky Sir”, they chime in unison (younger but wiser than my knighthood-conferring sibling, clearly) as their sharp-eyed teacher shows up to an empty parking lot — and encourages them to fly.

Lucky Sir happens to be sitting in a wheelchair while cheering the kids on, but this doesn’t stop eager tea-boy Arjun from instinctively recognising a superhero. He sees the swish kids swoosh around on their rollerblades and dreams of wheels on his own feet, and the film is about following those dreams, come what may.

It’s a smart angle for the film, too. Rollerblades, by their very nature — that of something normal stuck onto something normal to make something relatively extraordinary — lend themselves perfectly to the Do-It-Yourself concept, and armed with an ensemble of talented (and adorable) youngsters, Gupte affectionately crafts a truly sweet underdog story. Modelled on those American movies where fathers and sons build flimsy soapbox-racers that go on to beat karts many times as expensive, Hawaa Hawaai is simple but wonderful. It’s a well-textured and etched film, one refreshingly lacking in villains — even the richest, chubbiest kid isn’t a meanie — and one that heartbreakingly but smilingly illustrates the disparity between the kids shown in the film and the kids who can afford to buy theatre tickets to watch this film. Which is exactly why you should drag every kid you care about to this movie.

It is also the kind of film that may well have been dismissed as cloying, predictable or manipulative, but so stridently does Gupte’s sincerity shine through that cynicism is left at the door very early on. The film opens with a father singing an ode to the daily bread while a mother makes chapatis, and this, naturally, is a massive gamble, a move that could make the film seem dated, stagey and too much of a morality tale, but Gupte (who literally sings this song) endows this basic moment with such heart and warmth that it serves only to make the audience feel cosier about the idea of a moral lesson.

hh2Played by Gupte’s son Partho, Arjun is an indefatigable youngster, a well-raised boy who wears a constant smile to fend off hard times. Partho is a fine actor and an irresistibly cute kid — with superb Hindi elocution —  and Gupte surrounds him with a quartet of kids who are every bit his equal. These four — Gochi (Ashfaque Khan), Bhura (Salman Khan), Abdul (Maaman Menon) and Murugan (Tirupati Krishnapelli) — play homeless kids working several rungs below minimum wage, and they make for an amazing entourage, the real wheels pushing Arjun ahead. It’s hard not to smile (and sob) at them

Saqib Saleem, one of those naturally talented actors lacking in false notes, plays Lucky, and he’s a great fit for Gupte’s cinema considering how his performances hinge on believability instead of bluster. His is a more demanding character than initially apparent, and Saleem handles it well. He takes one look at Arjun’s homemade skates and incredulously dubs him his Eklavya, his ‘unworthy’ student and true champion, and thus do the kids begin calling him “Eklaava.” Most of the cast is on the money: Makarand Deshpande is beatific and blissed out as Arjun’s father, Neha Joshi is terrific as the boy’s mother, and it’s always good to see Razzak Khan grin. But the kids are the champs.

This is a brisk, enjoyable film, and while the climactic race is somewhat marred by an overdose of melodrama — Gupte’s far better at subtler strokes than the few broad ones he tries — it is rare to find a Hindi film hero more deserving of our cheers than Arjun. That unfortunate hint of Bhaag Milkha Bhaag in the final race doesn’t alter the fact that this is an earnest, important and evocative film.

Important? Yes. Gupte’s first film, the marvellous Stanley Ka Dabba was better-realised cinematically and held more to cherish, but Hawaa Hawaai tries to bite off more. And while its larger point about farmer suicides certainly ought have been handled more subtly, at least this film — like its characters — goes for broke. And that’s what makes it special. Or, as Arjun would say, “peshal.”

Rating: 3.5 stars

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First published Rediff, May 8, 2014

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Michael Matters: Our virtual vigil by Schumacher’s side

I owe Michael Schumacher my career.

Writers write, quite simply, because they must. What they write, however, makes for a far more fiendish decision. I’d dabbled with journalism, copywriting, poetry and bad drafts of first novels nobody will ever get to read, but it took a certain hero to spur me on and find a voice.

Michael Schumacher mattered right from the time I’d heard his name. It was irrational, this admiration of a man in blue-green overalls dominating a sport I — or anyone else I knew — didn’t really watch, but there was just something about the young German popping up so frequently in the sports pages. A youngster who looked assuredly at home on top of the world; a champion racing for a team that made most of my winter-wear.

At the time, my Formula One viewing was occasional and erratic, and I refused even to become a casual fan daunted by the technical intricacies of the sport, harsh-sounding multisyllabic names, and decidedly too much cricket-fanaticism for any other sport to make a difference. Then, fifteen years ago, I shuddered as I read about Michael breaking his leg in an accident at the British Grand Prix. I thought of the thirty-year-old, wished him well, and wondered how barbaric the sport was.

A few months later, he returned. And almost won. Actually, to be fair, he more than won: he made his teammate win. From that day to this one, I’ve missed watching maybe eight grands prix over twice as many years. Cricket became insignificant in comparison. And this passion was born out of that one extraordinary man.

I was, admittedly, Michael obsessed. I wore vampire-red sunglasses to watch races through (Ferrari-tinted, I called them) and made friends, dates, colleagues “wear red for Michael” on those all-important Sundays. I vividly remember rounding third-base and closing in on home for the first time ever, on a park bench in Delhi, but choosing instead to bolt in time to catch the five red lights going off at the race-start. (I can still recollect that exact podium.)

I still only ever play F1 video games as Michael’s partner — never daring a try as Michael himself — and, if when rounding the final corner he happens to be a few hairs behind me, I can’t help move over and applaud instead of being applauded. Seeing anyone else on the top-step of even a virtual podium feels wrong, you see.

Quizmasters hosting at sports bars soon stopped letting me answer questions, and I won a gigantic Ferrari flag by betting on a Michael streak despite impossible odds. But there was no scheming here, no form-book to look up: I bet on Michael because anything else would be inappropriate. In 2003, as a student in the UK, I whimsically placed a Ladbrokes bet with hard-scraped savings despite the season looking madly bleak at the time, and, at 8/1, made back enough to buy my first Macbook. The odds were never unreal enough to be of consequence.

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I was a copywriter in 2004 when Rediff asked me — based on an impassioned Dravid-bashing blogpost — to write for their sports section, and I suggested I start writing about Formula One. Because of Michael; because of the compulsion to write about true genius.

My first column was about a Michael win, and in that and the ones that followed, the words rushed out all at once, struggling to keep up with the tremendous sporting feat, the historic run we were all fortunate enough to watch in realtime. The rush of capturing the immense drama of a race in words soon put my day job to shame. Rediff, however, needed someone to write about films. So then, um, that happened. But the Formula One columns — especially those about Michael magic — have always been remarkably close to my heart.

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How good is Michael Schumacher?

It is dashed difficult to explain Michael Schumacher to someone who doesn’t know Formula One. The world of sport, usually a fine provider of parallels, fails to throw up a satisfactory legend, leaving us to clumsily nail together an invariably inadequate amalgam from elsewhere, and here’s mine: Imagine if The Beatles lasted as long as The Rolling Stones.

If the Fab Four wrought their revolution not over ten glorious years but sixty, outlasting and triumphing over not just their contemporaries but rubbing shoulders with modern bands, getting used to the new realms of punk and metal and rap and beating Bowie and Radiohead and Madonna at their games. And even when they finally abdicated, and were visibly not the best or loudest in the world, they still played on with gusto and — despite some calling them a bit long in the tooth — still occasionally conjured up something special enough to turn hearts to yo-yos.

Imagine, if you will, what that discography would be like.

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The last few days have been spent manning the news-wires, in prayer, in wish-making, in questing for hope. On Sunday a friend who works at a news channel texted me saying Michael was hurt in a skiing accident. An hour later the news was that it wasn’t serious. Two hours after that it began to look like a nightmare.

It is one thing getting a piece of news and coming to terms with it, but social media gets hold of a developing story and runs with it terrifyingly fast, often too blinded by its own pace to look at the facts. I spent the next days and nights on Twitter, hoping for updates, hoping for news, hoping for a picture of him lying in a hospital bed, winking that world-conquering wink at the camera.

What I continue to get is a steady stream of information and rumour, with old facts being republished by websites fishing for traffic, sensationalists who want to be the first to break bad news, and — alongside the rare but reliable daily updates — a few informed people who care enough to discuss the situation and explain its severity. A former Formula One doctor, Gary Hartstein, has been invaluable as a sane voice on Twitter (@former_f1doc), giving us perspective.

The rest is prayer. Footballers are refusing to sleep because they don’t want to wake up to fatal news. Cricketers playing the Ashes are saying they don’t care about it. Those who have never been Schumacher supporters are willing him on in what is being described as his greatest ever battle. A battle he never chose, and one for which he wasn’t even wearing warpaint. The rest of us, prone to tearing up, are cheering him and chanting for him and awaiting good news. The world, it is abundantly clear, has its fingers crossed.

David Coulthard, a former McLaren driver who once gave Schumacher the finger on the racetrack, and a man who was once almost beaten up by a furious Schumacher, has written the finest column about the legend and the situation. It is a column that, in its honesty and its timing, is worth more than Coulthard’s career, and I urge you all to go and read it.

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“You only like him because he’s born on your birthday,” a girl accused, back in college. My jaw dropped open. Not out of indignation (for it was patently untrue) but out of the sheer thrill of discovery. We all share our birthdays with people worth admiring, but somehow sharing January 3 with Michael Schumacher matters.

He turned 45 and I turned 33 today. And all I want for my birthday is what  millions around the world — millions touched by his brilliance, his spirit, his myth, his philanthropy and his grace — want, as they pray to varied gods and continue to hope: for him to smile that smile again. And yes, that wink he winks after winning a race. This 92nd win would be extraordinarily well deserved.

I choked when Michael teared up as he went past Ayrton Senna, and again when he announced his retirement in 2006. I scampered to the next race in Shanghai and saw his last race win, in grand style. Then he returned to the sport, buckled down and learnt to lose, and even came to India where I got to see him, talk to him, say a couple of things that made him grin back at me.

And now that super smile feels distant. Distant, yes, but far from insurmountable as the odds he beat every alternate Sunday, so, so many times over.

Conquer this too, Michael. Happy birthday to you, and may you get well soon. Wearing red today, naturally.

~

First published Rediff, January 3, 2014

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Sachin From The Stands: Day One

(Reporting from the cheap seats, that last time.)

The most curious thing on the ticket for the second match in the India vs West Indies test ‘series’ is a warning that “banners, flags etc” displaying any commercial logos which may be in conflict with those of the official match sponsors will not be allowed into the ground. Neither, as those carrying Indian flags soon discovered, is wood, so while you can take your tiranga into Wankhede Stadium, you can’t take the mast it’s wrapped around. As a result, most of the teeming, restless crowds waved a Star Sports banner which said, quite simply, “Believe.”

A portly gent in the row ahead of me, trying to make smalltalk with a flag-distributing girl in that way men do when they’d really rather know how to flirt, asked her, “but what do we believe in?” before sniggering as he looked around vainly and optimistically for a neighbouring laugh. Similarly occupied with sporadic audience-seeking were young boys unfairly in the possession of vuvuzelas and people who had printed out poorly spelt banners.

IMG_2179It was, then, a lazy morning at the Wankhede, largely because MS Dhoni had won the toss and elected to field. While this indeed gave the crowds a glimpse of Sachin throughout the morning — every time he stopped the ball the crowd sounded like it’d just climaxed — we’ve been raised as a batsman-celebrating nation, and despite Pragyan Ojha wrapping up the Windies with a five-for, the spectators cheered only and exclusively for that fellow playing his two hundredth, that guy who occasionally waved back when he was close enough to a fortunate (and suddenly louder) part of the outfield.

It was electrifying, yes, but in a somewhat expected kind of way. As the afternoon shadows stretched across the field, with bad chicken pizzas sold by the bushel and water impossibly hard to come by, it felt like a pleasant but unspectacular rush, that of a crowd of well-meaning non-fanatics who wanted to yell out the local legend’s name and maybe trap him in their cameraphone sights.

Things changed rather dramatically, when, after India began batting and motoring along rather beautifully, moustache-twirling young stud Shikhar Dhawan holed out. The crowd — which had been cheering West Indian lbw appeals with confounding vociferousness, as if a pair of Pakistani blaggards stood in the centre instead of two of our brightest — now lost it, and roared with approval. Damn the scoreboard, the wickets, the game, the nation. They wanted Batsman No 4 out there, and a couple of balls later, there he was.

The rumble grew with every second as he strode out, swinging his weapon belligerently, as if he fancied a spot of casual slaughter to go with tea-time. And then began the glorious cacophony of support as the entire ground gasped and clamoured for him in mad, heady unison. With every ball he faced — or indeed, every ball even his partner Cheteshwar Pujara faced — the instinctive “Sa-Chin, Sa-Chinnn” yells got louder and more manic, and every spectator swayed in a sea of love and adrenaline. The momentum swallowed us whole, making it impossible not to join in, not to yell your lungs out, not to hope and fear and then exult as he leaned into that drive.

IMG_2230For what it’s worth, he seemed to be enjoying it. The madness, the collective adulation, the indescribable hysteria. He looked around and played with exquisite fluency, his each poetic flourish making us achingly aware that we were seeing what we wouldn’t, ever again. He looked buoyed by the unconditionality of the attention rather than pressured by it, and we just stood and yelled and gaped. We celebrated his mother Rajni when the TV cameras swung in her direction right before the close of the day’s play, and hoped we sounded gratefully overwhelming enough to that lady watching her maiden Test Match.

Earlier in the day, when a West Indian batsman had flicked a ball to a boundary and one of our boys dived on the rope to save it, Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar, ever-eager to save a single, deftly took the ball from the lad and tossed it towards the wicket in a graceful, flawless arc, a coconut-shy of a throw that landed inches away from the astonished wicketkeeper, who applauded. The audience, you guessed it, went wild. Right behind me a kid of about 7 nudged his friend and said, wonder dripping from every syllable, “he can do anything, na?”

Hah. And here we were wondering what to believe in.

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First published Mumbai Mirror, November 15, 2013

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Review: Ron Howard’s Rush

Formula One has the habit of making other sports look absurdly insignificant.

What, you run real quick? What, you flog a bit of leather? What, you hit another bloke in the face?

Well, I battle gravity and push physics to the limit by hurling myself at the apex of a curve, calculating and strategising about the car behind me, braking crucially late while knowing full well that I could careen into a rival inches ahead of me, and shatter a chassis or two or a neck or two.

rush-movie-1Comparisons will forever appear laughable, but not quite as much as when Formula One was bloodsport, days when — as Niki Lauda says in Rush — two out of 25 drivers died every year. Those insane statistics nutshell the relentlessly, giddily gladiatorial sport F1 had become in its quest to straddle speed and danger, and even by that unacceptable norm, 1976 was a particularly dramatic year.

So dramatic, to be precise, that one would be forgiven for thinking Ron Howard’s film, set around that year’s Formula One World Championship season, is fictional. But sport is where fact often leapfrogs the imagination, when true human conflict supersedes acceptable writing. Where we only suspend our disbelief because we’re told all that’s happening on screen, no matter how preposterous, has its roots in reality.

You couldn’t find more diametrically opposed racing drivers than the technically proficient Austrian great Niki Lauda, and swinging, Union Jacking superstar James Hunt. Lauda was one of the first drivers who understood the importance of aerodynamics, and revered for his excellent understanding of a car’s limits. Hunt was the definitive F1 playboy, a man with the badge “Sex: Breakfast Of Champions” sewn onto his overalls, a lad who’d gargle champagne before winning races. In 1976, these rivals put daggers between teeth, stared death in the face and lived to finish the tale.

Ron Howard’s film is written by the infallible Peter Morgan, the playwright and screenwriter who fashions known historical facts into riveting narratives so laden with plot they’d make George RR Martin jealous. The two had worked before on the astonishing Frost/Nixon, but armed with this much deliriously cinematic meat, they go one better. This is a Scorsese-worthy story, and Howard rises to the moment and does it justice. Rush is not just the best film of Ron Howard’s career — a rip-roaring smash about a great human story, and two damn fascinating men — but among the finest sports films in modern cinema.

The casting is spot-on, with Chris ‘Thor’ Hemsworth playing the frequently unzipped Hunt and Daniel Bruhl of Inglourious Basterds as the nearly-Vulcan Lauda. Both actors are in exceptionally fine form. Hemsworth gets the swagger right, Bruhl masters that accent, and together they bring to life an intensely passionate rivalry. (To be fair, it is a bit exaggerated. The two fought on the track but never loathed each other like the film showed; by all accounts, their’s was a relationship of competitive respect. But then again, Hunt did always say Lauda looked like a rat.)

The racing action is brilliant, with inventive cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle fitting cameras into peculiar crevasses in the vintage chassis. The viewer is forced closer to the action — and much, much closer to that Sherman Tank of an engine — than television can allow, and the results are dizzying. You do not have to be a fan to love this film, though a fan would derive much pleasure by seeing the doppelgangers cast in important smaller roles, like that of Enzo Ferrari or Clay Regazzoni. (The finest supporting actor here is Christian McKay as the memorable Alexander Hesketh, a whimsical team-owner who introduced the F1 pitlane to oysters and caviar, and a man worth a movie all his own.) The acting is top-notch all around, and the women — Alexandra Maria Lara, Natalie Dormer and Olivia Wilde — up the film’s stakes considerably.

rush-movie-2For there is so much more to this film than racing. There is a whole lot of sex: on the most important day of his career Hunt is shown waking from a Japanese hotel bed with two pairs of feet flanking his own. And then there’s even more insight: Hunt prepares for a Formula One race by lying down with his eyes closed, visualising the Monte Carlo grand prix circuit in pre-simulator times; Lauda learns that no woman can rev up an Italian man’s motor quite like a Ferrari driver can. There are even exquisite details for fans of motorsport history, including quotes that have since become legendary, and women even more so. Also, Hunt’s beloved budgerigars make an appearance.

Don’t look up 1976, don’t look up file footage, just go watch this rousing film. And then get a hold of the BBC documentary, F1’s Greatest Rivals: Hunt vs Lauda so you can watch the real men and marvel at how perfectly Morgan and Howard took the story and ran with it. Many years ago, John Frankenheimer’s 1966 stunner Grand Prix cemented my then-fledgling love for motorsport, and now Howard has, at long last, created another film evocative enough to ignite pitlane-passion in hearts that haven’t yet thumped for Formula One.

Rush is a film about a racing season — and two seasoned racers — so damned thrilling that it would compel the most stubborn Formula One hater, those people who insist mastering technology isn’t a sporting enough achievement and forget every other part of the invariably human equation. For the Formula One fan, this is a film worthy of a magnum of Mumm’s finest champagne — if only for the chance to hear those massive V12 engines explode across the big screen. VrrrRRRRRRooom.

Rating: 4.5 stars

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First published Rediff, September 20, 2013

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Fernando Alonso and the scarlet dream

I once made a Fernando Alonso voodoo doll.

Well, not an Alonso doll per se, but a few of us fanatically pissed Formula One supporters took a tiny F1 car, wrote Renault on it with a felt pen, and called it the Spaniard’s vehicle. Tacks were jammed into tyres, and a magnifying glass may or may not have been used to ignite its nose. Either way, we wanted nothing more than that perpetually whiny, arrogant and exasperatingly talented World Champion to crash out in Brazil, the final round of the 2006 season.

It was Michael Schumacher’s last race, and while the retiring German had handled an unfortunate, gruelling season with grace, Alonso was crying himself blue saying his own team was sabotaging his chances. It was the last straw after two years of watching a bizarrely quick brat of a champion constantly blame either his team or other drivers. In a team sport, with a team solidly behind him — later proven to even be illegally behind him, but more on that in a bit — he was enough of a jerk to compare himself to a lonely Tour De France cyclist, going uphill all by himself. It was nauseating, watching an obviously brilliant driver who happened also to be a whinging putz. Champ and chump all at once, he could win the title but couldn’t come close to earning our respect.

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1In November 2012, Fernando Alonso and I rode up a New York elevator in silence. We smiled at each other, him because he had to, me because I really felt like. I felt, as a matter of fact, like reaching out and grabbing his hand and pumping it with the love and gratitude of a sworn Ferrari fan.

This was two days after the US Grand Prix, and, again, five days before the World Championship finale in Brazil. Again, it was Michael Schumacher’s last race. Again, Alonso was locked in battle with a flawless German racer. Again, I had my fingers crossed for the result.

Things had changed. Tacks were not involved.

Ever since he joined Ferrari in 2010, Alonso had turned into a different man: a team player, a good sport, a man candidly generous with praise and one who looked at (most) on-track mishaps with unflappable calm. Just when fans around the world had made up their minds to dislike him, he switched abruptly from Heel to Face. Dashed inconvenient, but there it was. In Ferrari gear, he was a Champion’s Champion (even without winning the title) an extraordinary warrior who made even mediocre cars shine. It was as if he’d decided the Darth Vader mask didn’t go well with scarlet overalls.

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We were in Manhattan because Kaspersky Lab, the anti-virus software folk who now rent some inches of real estate on those aforementioned red overalls, were hosting a press event to highlight their links with Formula One. The Russian outfit’s charismatic CEO Eugene Kaspersky was on hand to break the ice with Fernando before handing him over to us, and this he did like a particularly personable pickaxe. Having started out collecting computer viruses when “other children collected postage stamps or butterflies,” the information security expert spoke of how he related to Ferrari as a team. “Like my company, Ferrari is like a group of friends, a gang that fights for success.” The gang is also the oldest team in Formula One, a company who started selling cars so that they have money to go racing, instead of the other way around. And all their hopes rest on 31-year-old Alonso’s shoulders.

2Alonso began go-karting at the same time that the late great Ayrton Senna — the legendary three-time world champion Alonso hopes to emulate — made his Formula One debut: which means the Spaniard was all of three years old. “I don’t remember anything,” Alonso admits, “but there are the videos and pictures at home, and also I have the drivers licence which says 1984, so it should be true. I only know that the first race was a 20-lap race in a straight circuit in a go-kart, and I think I did 3 or 4 [laps] and the winners did 20, so they had lapped me some 20 times.” Progress, however, was remarkably swift. “At 8, or maybe 7, I won the karting championship of my area, my region, and then competed in the Spanish championship, then the European championship… and when I was 14, I was World Champion in go-karts. So it was something that happened very quick.”

Success that rapid that early in life can be sufficiently heady, but Alonso’s family kept him grounded. “When you’re racing and you’re winning trophies at this young age, everyone is very friendly with you and everyone wants something from you, and you become like a toy to them; they try to use you all the time.” Alonso’s family — with his mother working in a perfume shop and his father in a mine — was quick to disabuse him of any growing notions of glamour. “Every time I went home, my father always told me that ‘you are racing now, but next year you will be studying or helping me repair homes or put in windows. I have a good friend that now puts elevators, so I think I can find a job for you in the future.’” The very idea of becoming a Formula One driver was too absurd, too unreal. “I honestly thought it sounded like a good opportunity; that I am driving right now but maybe next year I have no contract, and so maybe I’ll put elevators.”

But those hands just weren’t meant to install lifts. “After I won the World Championship, I started getting paid to race in go-karts and I said this is fantastic. I’m 14, doing what I like to do, and I receive some money. A dream come true. And when they offered me single-seaters I said ‘no way.’” Eventually Alonso hesitantly took the jump, and instantly won in single-seater racers. There was no looking back. “Yeah, I was the third youngest in history to make the debut in Formula One in 2001, at 19, and then youngest to win a race, youngest to get a podium, and youngest to win the World Championship in 2005. So, yeah, everything was coming very quickly and I enjoyed it.”

“My first car was a company car,” he says, smiling. “It was a Renault Megane when I was racing for the Renault team. And it was quite a big day because I was 18, and got my driver’s licence, and my only thought at that time was to go to school in that car. And the school is 400 metres from home! It was impossible to park, a big problem. But it was my dream to take my car to school. I was looking for a car that was nice, that was fast, but that was not the case and so I enjoyed it anyway.” A racer who leaves all the adrenaline on the track and ambles about when in a roadcar, Alonso took it so easy during his driving licence test that the teacher had to comment. “I passed the exam and it was all okay, but there was a small note from the teacher saying that I was too slow.”

It’s a complaint motorsport pundits could never consider with the Spaniard, a driver known for instinctively finding the sweet spot in weaker cars and driving them beyond their optimum. It’s a rare gift, and so adept is Alonso at disguising a car’s weaknesses that even his team engineers have complained in the past that his driving style doesn’t give them enough to work with; that he makes bad cars look deceptively good. And when given a genuinely good set of wheels — as Renault did in 2005 and 2006 — he took the fight to none other than Michael Schumacher and his wheezing Ferrari.

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3Fernando Alonso hasn’t won since then. Primed to dominate the decade, he has looked on as Kimi Raikkonen (2007), Lewis Hamilton (2008), Jenson Button (2009) and Sebastian Vettel (all three years since) have marched away with the titles. In 2007, he joined McLaren for one season where he was trounced by Hamilton, then a rookie. The scowl on the Spaniard’s face was permanent and, it must be said, most amusing. In 2008, Renault boss Flavio Briatore wilfully engineered an accident to give Fernando an on-track advantage in Singapore, bringing about his first win of the season. An investigative committee later found Alonso innocent of the conspiracy, banning Briatore and others involved.

In 2010, Alonso moved to Ferrari, and now seems so vitally a part of the team that even his accent sounds spaghetti-flecked. He has also started to smile a winning smile. A lot. (On YouTube, there are videos of Vettel playfully doing impressions of other drivers. The popular Alonso clip, on the other hand, has him casually cracking open a walnut using his neck.) He seems to be relishing racing, more than ever.

I can’t help but ask him about the discernible change in his approach, the way he has gone from being a person who badmouthed his team whenever possible to a man who stands firmly behind his team, however big the gaffe. Is it because he’s happier at Ferrari or has he just matured as a driver? “I think it’s because they do a hundred percent. If I feel the team does 99% while I’m doing 100%, 365 days a year, I say it to everyone. It’s strange because a team should do 100% for their goal, and for winning, and some teams didn’t do this in the past, and the year after that I’d change the team. I have this [kind of] luck.”

6He clearly feels things are different now, and he speaks of his new team not just effusively but firmly enough as if declaring war on rival teams. “With Ferrari, this is a racing team. They do everything for racing. They love racing, they have always been in Formula One. We can win or lose, we can do better or worse, we can have the fastest car or not, but every single person in the team dedicates 24 hours a day to this team, and they love this team. Even when they see, passing in the street, one Ferrari GT, they feel like they did something. Maybe they just painted the mirror, maybe they painted something, but they feel like it is theirs. This is very different with Ferrari compared to any other team, so I love this team.”

Another reason Alonso loves Ferrari is because he has been handed the reigns to the stable, with teammate Felipe Massa clearly in a Number Two position. This suits Alonso, who hated his torrid McLaren year with Hamilton, a partner who’d fight him to the end. Alonso prefers and flourishes in the captain’s role, even though it may not suit Ferrari’s needs: a more competitive teammate than Massa (in current form) may have taken Ferrari to the Constructors Championship. In 2012, it may well have helped Alonso’s chances to have a partner nimbly holding back his rivals. But then everything last year was achieved against all odds.

When the 2012 season began, the Ferrari was one second off the pace. It started to improve, but very slowly. Alonso — as if a crummy car (and, resultantly, poor qualifying position) were immaterial — kept his foot down and decided to stay flawless. Midway through the season — a whimsical season that saw seven different winners in the first seven races, a season with no formbook — Fernando Alonso led the field by no less than 40 points.

“We’d like to have boring seasons where we know [what will happen in] the races,” he smiles. “That will be our dream season. But it is very difficult to get that. So this year we arrived at a circuit and didn’t know if we will be tenth or pole position on Saturday. It’s something we can  try to enjoy as drivers, and the engineers and teams don’t like it too much, because with the computers and simulations everything is ready and all settled, and when something is out of control they get a little bit distressed. But it’s a wonderful season, I think, because people enjoyed it from the outside. And hopefully we’ll enjoy it more next time.”

4It has indeed been a miraculous year for him, and even after his luck wore thin and Sebastian Vettel’s Red Bull started looking characteristically good, Alonso continued bullishly to guarantee victory. In a field littered with increasingly young winners and prodigious prodigies, Alonso appears an alpha-male scrapping it out with boys. The Spaniard has a samurai tattooed on his back, and frequently, in a run up to last year’s finale, began referring to himself as both gladiator and samurai, assuring the world he would win, despite Vettel having usurped his lead.

He is clear, however, that this self-assurance has nothing to do with rage. (Which also means he doesn’t have a katana handy to slice Seb’s front-wing off if he gets too close at the second chicane. Pity. ) “It is not revenge, not at all,” he assures. “This is sport and sometimes everything goes good and sometimes not so good, and what’s important is to give it everything you’ve got. And we did that this year. And I think if we win, it will be some kind of justice. Not revenge, but I honestly feel we deserve it more, so 99% of the people watching, I think, will be happy.” That includes the drivers: a poll before the last race of the year showed nearly 90% of the pilots in the paddock agreeing on Alonso deserving the title more.

Alonso says the first world championship is the hardest, because it’s so hard to sleep when fighting for that first title. It gets easier, but — when a season is heading into its climax — not by much. As a multiple World Champion, how important is winning on a race-by-race basis? “Oh, it’s not that we enjoy winning,” he beams, bathed in confidence. “It’s that we hate losing.”

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Five days later, he lost the 2012 World Championship to Sebastian Vettel. By three points. Vettel, six years younger, pipped him to the third world title, and will be gunning for a fourth. And that’s not all, by a long shot. Hamilton, Button and Raikkonen, all with blood on their fangs, are furiously circling the trophy now, each with a point to prove. There will be new regulations and engine changes, and more to get used to. As the F1 circus gets into gear again later this month, the Spaniard’s task is going to be anything but simple.

5

Then again, Fernando Alonso has never had anything to do with simple.

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That November afternoon, Eugene Kaspersky gave the world’s press a tip, a tip to will Alonso to victory: “All of you please support Fernando by drinking to him. Don’t do it before, but just after the start of the race. Raise your glasses, drink to Fernando and it’ll help. We need you.” Raising an imaginary toast to himself, the driver laughingly nodded agreement.

In 2006, I had tacks. In 2012, I had tequila. Fernando Alonso defied wishes each time. Champions, clearly, carve their own fortune.

 

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First published Man’s World magazine, March 2013

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