I've been a fan of Fire in Babylon since I saw it a year or so ago. It's a tremendously entertaining documentary, and those of you who haven't seen it have a chance next week, thanks to a limited theatrical release courtesy PVR. I spoke to the director Stevan Riley for this piece for Time Out.
The English, as we all know, introduced its colonies – notably India and the West Indies – to cricket. Not surprising then, that defeating their former rulers at their own game would prove a huge boost to the self-esteem of these two cricketing nations. After India recorded their first series win in England in 1971, Wisden reported that people in Bombay were dancing in the streets and garlanding wireless sets. And the 3-0 drubbing the West Indies gave England in 1976 marked the beginning of nothing less than a new era in world cricket.
Fire in Babylon, an affectionate look back at the West Indian team of the late ’70s, uses this series win as a dramatic turning point in its story. In 1975, the Windies were humiliated by the Australian fast bowlers, a defeat that galvanised their captain Clive Lloyd into finding his own pace battery. A year later, he had Andy Roberts, Michael Holding and Vanburn Holder (Colin Croft and Joel Garner would soon join that line-up). The real spark, however, was English skipper Tony Greig’s promise to make the West Indian visiting team “grovel”. As Gordon Greenidge points out in the film, this was not a very clever thing to say. The West Indian pacemen, bowling fast and short of a length (in a pre-helmet age), subjected the English to a torrid time. The visitors won 3-0. Jamaican band Ezeike had a hit with “Who’s Grovelling Now?”.
Fire in Babylon’s director, British documentary filmmaker Steven Riley, is a long-time fan of the West Indian team, especially their fast bowlers. “I remember watching matches as a teenager, waiting for someone to get hurt,” he said, over the phone from London. “That was part of the excitement.” He said that in those days, he “partly supported the West Indies, even when they were playing against England”. (Many Indians who grew up in the’70s and ’80s have made similar admissions about this particular team.) In 2009, when two cricket-crazy producers, Ben Elliott and Ben Goldsmith, floated the idea of making a film on the subject, he jumped at the chance to direct it.
Riley may have been a fan, but he wasn’t an expert. To remedy this, he dove into research, reading everything from CLR James’ Beyond a Boundary to player biographies. His immersion in the period helped him convince several greats from the team to appear in his film. “The real turning point was when we got Viv on board,” Riley said. Vivian Richards, regarded by many as the greatest batsman of his era, lends his deep-voiced authority to the film, as do Croft, Greenidge, Lloyd, Holding and Roberts. Holding even does the narration in his distinctive patois. There’s also a diverse sample of talking heads: dreadlocked author Frank I, professor Hilary Beckles and the legendary Bunny Wailer.
Wailer isn’t the only musician to feature in the film. Fire in Babylon is the closest thing imaginable to a cricket-themed calypso-and-reggae musical. Though the narrative focuses on the years between 1975 and ’85, the soundtrack goes further back, featuring singers like Lord Short Shirt, and a performance of Lord Beginner’s 1950 number “Cricket Lovely Cricket”, with its immortal couplet “With those little pals of mine/ Ramadhin and Valentine”. Riley said it was difficult to imagine making the film any other way. “Music is so much part of the culture in the West Indies,” he said. “You can’t walk 20 yards in Jamaica without someone coming at you with a ghetto blaster.” He pointed out how singing eulogies to the cricket team was a local tradition. “The overlaps between music and cricket and politics there are fascinating.”
Audiences here should find it easy to identify with one of Fire in Babylon’s recurring themes: that cricket, at its best, is more than just a game. “These islands only come together under the banner of the West Indian cricket team. It’s the only thing we do together,” says Holding at one point. The film examines how this team became a unifying force for the islands, and how its success went some way in erasing the lingering colonial hangover. The team was also, in its own way, a political force, standing up for blacks in South Africa during apartheid, and for their own rights as athletes and entertainers (frustrated with their low salaries, they briefly ditched the national team for Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket).
The biggest stumbling block with discussing the Windies’ glorious past is that the discussion invariably turns to its unhappy present. After remaining unbeaten between 1980 and 1995 – an unrivalled run in modern sport – the supply of lightning quicks dried up and the slump began. Riley hoped that his film might serve as “an education” for young West Indians unaware of their cricketing past. It’s already done the trick once. On 12th June this year, in the third Test against England, Tino Best scored 95, a world record for a number 11 batsman. Later, he credited Fire in Babylon as the inspiration for his knock.