83: Forget riots, trains, enemy soldiers; Kabir Khan’s film is at its worst when it tries to be funny

“What is the cost of lies?” Jared Harris’ Valery Legasov says in the opening moments of HBO’s Chernobyl. “It’s not that we’ll mistake them for the truth. The real danger is that if we hear enough lies, then we no longer recognize the truth at all.” Released at the peak of the Trump presidency, the five-episode miniseries was designed as a rebuttal to the age of alternate-facts. But the show’s mission statement, announced so lucidly by Legasov before we’d even seen his face, applies to every facet of life in the 21st century.

I think about these words often. You hear lies on the news all the time, especially on television. Sometimes you hear unconscious lies from mothers, when they tell their children that a certain food is good for them, even though there is very little evidence to prove that it is. But most recently, these words crossed my mind while I was watching 83the rousing sports drama directed by Kabir Khan, about the Indian cricket team’s underdog victory at the 1983 World Cup.

There was a time when, if they tried hard enough, movie producers and publicists could create a false narrative about a project’s success. They’d cook the books and fudge the numbers, and repeat them over and over again until the general public simply stopped doubting them. And then, some smart marketeer probably realized that if this strategy could work for a film’s commercial performance, theoretically, it could also be applied to shaping the audience’s perception about its quality. And that is what happened with 83.

They applied a three-pronged approach. The first (and perhaps most powerful narrative) was that 83 would be a cathartic end-of-pandemic experience for people who had nothing to cheer about for two years. This theory hinged on the assumption that the pandemic was over, which, as the movie’s abruptly halted theatrical run made abundantly (and ironically) clear, it wasn’t. The second involved an endorsement from the real-life figures behind the true story, and star Ranveer Singh repeated public comments about having received praise unlike any that he’d seen before. And the third—and this was the most insidious—was that it appealed to your patriotism, wondering how you can not like a film about India’s most glorious achievement in those decades.

We all saw a similar situation unfold with the film Dil Bechara, which, if you remember, once had an IMDb rating in the vicinity of The Godfather. But the film evaporated from public consciousness mere days after its release. And for all the hoopla around 83, nobody talks about it anymore, even though it was released just recently. Good movies stand the test of time. 83 couldn’t last three months. And that’s because it simply wasn’t good enough.

Directed by Kabir Khan and starring the usually reliable Ranveer Singh, the film wasn’t downright terrible. Almost tragically, it was precisely the sort of middle-of-the-road experience that challenges you to form strong opinions about it. Now, even though there are several aspects of the movie that deserve a dissection—what in the world was happening with that counterproductive communal riots subplot?—but those deserve separate articles. For this one, we’re going to focus on one scene—two, maybe—that represents a fundamental problem with the storytelling in this movie.

You see, 83 is the kind of film that undercuts its own drama with tone-deaf moments of ‘humor’—it’s like a Marvel movie, but much worse. The greatest example of this is the totally irrelevant scene involving Srikkanth’s deliberate decision to lead a woman on just so he could get a home-cooked meal out of her in a foreign land. In any other film, this scene would’ve been deleted, for several reasons—not only does it affect the pacing, it’s also inconsequential to the story, and doesn’t really do much for character development either.

Srikkanth, for reasons best known to Kabir Khan, is used as comic relief in a film that isn’t intense enough to require comic relief in the first place. In another scene a few minutes later—this is the one in which Kapil Dev hits a match-winning captain’s knock—we’re shown how Srikkanth was barred from using the washroom while the skipper was at the crease. But instead of making this a humorous aside, Khan makes this the crux of the scene. So, every time Kapil hits the ball for a boundary or something, Khan cuts to a pained Srikkanth, holding it in.

I’m sure the filmmaker is drawing from reality in both scenes. Srikkanth probably regaled him with many such stories during the scripting process. But a smarter director would have listened to these stories and had the sense of how to weave them into the film, instead of recreating them beat-for-beat on screen. God knows many Hindi movies (and shows) are plot-driven. All of them could use some breathing room. But not like this. Not in ways that undermine the dramatic stakes of your fact-based inspirational tale. Especially one that can’t rely on suspense to build audience engagement. Ranveer’s cartoonist performance certainly doesn’t help either; in fact, it highlights these glaring tonal inconsistencies.

As everyone involved with the film (and literally everybody else, too) already knows, there’s a great story in here somewhere that absolutely deserves the grandest telling ever. Perhaps in a few years another creative team could have a crack at it, one that understands the grammar of sports movies. And when that time comes, let’s resist overeager, knee-jerk reactions?

Post Credits Scene is a column in which we dissect new releases every week, with particular focus on context, craft, and characters. Because there’s always something to fix about once the dust has settled.

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