Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Sachin: A Billion Dreams: Review

A couple of months after John Lennon was shot, his former Beatles bandmate George Harrison paid tribute to him. “You had control of our smiles and our tears,” Harrison sang on "All Those Years Ago". This line has always struck me as an apt description of the hold Sachin Tendulkar had over this country. He was the barometer of our moods, the determiner of our self-worth. Conventional narrative will tell you that Sachin freed India up, but the truth is, we shackled ourselves to him for 24 years.

James Erskine’s documentary is shackled to its subject as well. Sachin: A Billion Dreams is a tribute reel, a Very Special Episode on a sports channel blown up to 138 minutes. It creates the illusion of intimacy, then gives you the same old Sachin story you know so well. And it has exactly the level of insight about India and its people that you’d expect from a director who isn’t from here.

To call this hagiography is to mince words: the extent to which this film flatters and hero-worships its subject is plain embarrassing. Not that this is a surprise – from the moment it was announced that Sachin would participate in the telling of his own life story, this was the only kind of film that was going to emerge. No one realistically expects Sachin – as much a master of the diplomatic dodge as the straight drive – to say “It was Azhar all along” or “Kambli kind of got on my nerves”. But couldn’t we at least have a moment of irritation when Dravid declares with him not out on 194? The strongest statements in the film are those concerning his sacking as captain in 1997. “No one even phoned me,” he says. And, a little later: “You can take captaincy from me, but not cricket.”

Apart from a few sepia-tinted docu-drama recreations of his childhood, the film allows Sachin to narrate his own story, often directly to camera, reading Erskine and Sivakumar Ananth’s mawkish lines in that earnest voice of his. There’s a wealth of match footage, some intimate home movies of Sachin with family and friends, and every talking head you’d expect in a film like this (the absences – Sanjay Manjrekar, Kapil Dev, Rahul Dravid – are more notable). Erskine offers no analysis of his own, just a steady stream of No 10’s greatest hits, set to a syrupy score by AR Rahman. There are some intriguing details (apparently, Sachin was a bat-repair wiz), but for the most part, we’re offered a drearily virtuous narrative: Tendulkar as dutiful son, loving father, dedicated servant of the nation.

Here’s the really embarrassing bit. Sachin: A Billion Dreams is a singularly unimaginative, almost slavish piece of documentary film-making. Yet, I couldn’t help getting wrapped up in it. How could I not? This wasn’t Sachin’s story unfolding – it was my own. There I was, staring in shock as he took those suicidal steps out of the crease in the 1996 World Cup semi-final. Switching off the TV after “desert storm” with the knowledge that I’d seen something that would stay with me the rest of my life. Watching him charge Henry Olonga and Michael Kasprowicz, journeymen bowlers who’ll never be forgotten in India because of the innings Sachin played against them.

Though it’s an inherently compromised film, Sachin provided a powerful communal viewing experience. In the hall, I could hear my own complaints echoed in the dark (“They’re going to skip over fixing”; “That was Sehwag’s game”). Incantations were uttered – “aisles”, “Caddick six”, “shoulders” – pedestrian phrases made remarkable by the weight of collective and personal memory contained in them. It was a reminder of something that has gone out of our lives – not just Sachin himself, but the idea of a nation in unison, all of us chanting, praying, sitting in our lucky seats and not moving.

“We will never again agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis,” Lester Bangs wrote in a 1977 tribute. In 2011, I’d have extended this analogy to Sachin. Now, I’m not sure people still believe that we ever agreed on him. In these times of sub-tweeting and op-eds written in reaction to other op-eds, the idea of a universally held view on anything seems antiquated. I’ll end, therefore, on a personal note. Objectively speaking, Sachin: A Billion Dreams is safe, sentimental and saccharine. I was nevertheless thrilled by it. The heart wants what it wants.

This review appeared in Mint.

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