Azhar: Batt(l)ing The Odds
Bhai, match fixing ka toh pata nahin, par yeh movie zaroor fix hui hai! As the world and its brother now know, the movie ‘Azhar’ is said to be (note my words carefully, please!) a biopic on cricketer Mohammed Azharuddin, or Azhar, as he is more popularly known as. Recently, Azhar was seen on Kapil Sharma’s comedy show along with the cast of the movie, nodding his head and shaking a leg and generally accepting that yes, this movie is on and about him and that Emraan Hashmi, the lead actor who plays the reel Azhar, has done a pretty good job of imitating him. In an India Today interview, the erstwhile cricket captain is quoted to have said that Hashmi has “imbibed my style.” Even the Wikipedia page on the movie states that this is a biographical film based on the life of Indian cricketer Mohammed Azharuddin. So then after all this build up, why, in the name of all that’s holy, does the blasted film carry a disclaimer right at the beginning stating that this is (I’m quoting) ‘not a biopic, just entertainment and nothing is an accurate re-creation.’ If, like the term yellow journalism, there is something known as yellow marketing, then Ekta Kapoor as producer has just bagged the first award! There was so much marketing overkill about this movie being a biopic on Azhar who, never mind all the match fixing and love tangle scandal, remains one of India’s most successful sportsmen as well as able team captains, that obviously it would set the box office in a frenzy come Friday, as his countless fans as well as critics throng the theatres to learn what actually happened in his life.
What actually happened in his life perhaps we will never know, as the script is the most puerile, hackneyed plot ever, comprised of disgusting dramatics and tacky dialogues. I don’t pretend to be a cricket fan, but I sure know bad writing when I see it! I am still trying to fathom why there would be a dialogue where Azhar calls himself “India ka damaad” – import item hai kya?! Also, Nargis Fakhri, essaying the role of Sangeeta Bijlani, goes: “Tumne usse apna naam diya hai, kabhi dhoka mat dena” about the first wife; wah wah, taaliyaan from the chavanni crowd!
The pivot of the movie is the match fixing scandal and not the Bollywood quotient in the form of his love life with starlet Sangeeta Bijlani or Bijli, as speculation will have it. In 2000, at the peak of his success, Azhar was implicated in a match fixing scandal, with South Africa’s captain Hansie Cronje’s incriminating admission. Since Azhar was virtually unstoppable till this point and what brought him crashing down from demi-god status was Cronjie’s testimony, following which the cricket commission issued a life-ban on Azhar, this scene in the movie could have been written more forcefully and passionately. Instead, we have an abrupt scene with a couple of dudes hollering at a stunned team captain and storming out of the room without giving him a chance to say much. Such infantile behaviour is not expected from an august body such as the Cricket Association of India. The scene where Azhar is introduced to Shawn, a diamond merchant, who is in fact a bookie, is repeated in its entirety in the movie; somebody should have explained the concept of flashbacks to the director!
Till the interval at least the movie seemed hugely fanciful and any hopes I had that things would improve marginally, were quickly dashed. When a mutinous team refuses to co-operate with the newly minted team captain, Kapil Dev steps in to pour oil over troubled waters; again, forced, theatrical writing with little substance to the dialogues or the acting. The strife between ambitious seniors such as Ravi Shastri and Navjyot Singh Sidhu and the newbie star batsman has also not been finely etched; as a result, those scenes just have each actor trying to present his best side to the camera. (Speaking of which, this movie is also a lesson in how to swallow one’s ego for the sake of TRP’s; considering the poor light in which Sidhu has been portrayed and also considering Azhar was shown the script prior to shooting which presumably means alla this had his nod of consent, it was an exercise in hypocrisy to watch the former welcome the latter fairly gleefully on the Kapil Sharma show!) Azhar and team mate Manoj Prabhakar did have some differences, further exacerbated by the former turning key witness against Azhar, however, rather than delicately draw out the professional conflicts, the movie just descends into pettiness by portraying Prabhakar as some preying, smirking neighbourhood lout.
Basically, the movie just proves one thing – we ain’t never gonna find out what happened! According to the script – and please bear in mind it has Azhar’s approval – the cricket captain piously “accepted” the bribe money only so that none of his other team mates be lured into temptation and then faithfully returned every rupee soon as he single-handedly won the match. Aww. Where are the tissues and the violins?!
I have interacted with Mohammad Azharuddin several times; I have been to his house and I have invited him to the Taj Krishna where he came accompanied by Sangeeta Bijlani and yes, people were surprised to see them make a public appearance at a well-known luxury hotel in the city. Bijli was glamorous and had a slightly defiant, challenging air, but Azhar has always come across as remarkably understated and dignified. While Hyderabadi society can be unforgiving and cricket fans quite caustic, I doubt if Azhar actually faced the over-the-top cold shoulder treatment as shown in the movie. It is true that India, for whom cricket is a religion, will not take kindly to a cricketer’s fall from grace, but I seriously doubt that the gym inauguration scene with all its sneering condescension is close to reality; I would be surprised to learn anybody spoke with so much arrogance to the imperturbable Azhar on his face.
The court scenes are so hammed and pathetic one feels one is watching a B-grade re-run of the seventies! The movie ends with Azhar being vindicated by the court; in real life, the Andhra Pradesh High Court did indeed life the life ban on him in 2012. However, he has never been able to completely erase the stigma, as senior police officials still stand by the evidence they collected during the process of the trial. In the movie, the end is predictably dramatic, as both his wives walk into the courtroom to hear the verdict. Script writer Rajat Arora had so much material to play with, given that the entire nation was avidly following this trial. One wonders then why he chose to take the over-the-top dramatic route in the treatment. One further wonders how the real Azhar sanctioned an absolutely amateur attempt at screenplay-writing such as this. Apart from glorifying him, presenting him as the martyr and glossing over his foibles while highlighting his talent, the script does precious little else.
Lara Dutta as the prosecutor Mira was just grandstanding in the court scenes, which have been written taking into no account whatsoever how cases are actually presented in court. Dutta at the best of times could never be called an “actor”; perhaps it would be to the good if she went back to cheerleading for tennis. Prachi Desai as Azhar’s wife Naureen has fared better. Nargis Fakhri definitely does not drop any bijlis! Intensely wooden throughout, her looks get a tad better once she removes the excess make-up and garish dresses. When I think of the flak Anushka Sharma faced for her lip job gone bad….has anybody notice Fakhri’s duck lips in this movie?! Can somebody please declare a ban on Kunaal Roy Kapur from acting?? He seems to specialise in playing the buffoon and the times he let his put-on Hyderabadi accent slip were too many to count. What was the silent message here – that even though he had a clown for a lawyer, Azhar’s innate honesty and goodness won the day?!
Some more things we will never know – why was Emraan Hashmi chosen for this role, why does he have such a markedly bad hairline and why does he look like he’s sucking on a lemon throughout the movie? I know the real Azhar can be fairly grim and can hardly be called the life of the party, but Hashmi’s expressions take it to a whole new level. I have no idea what the casting director was thinking. Apart from the lead cast being lacklustre, even the supporting actors are wash-outs, except Rajesh Sharma as the bookie, MK Sharma.
The movie is edited by Dev Jadhav and Vipul Chouhan. In my opinion, a competent editor should be able to spot fatal flaws in the script and so alert the director. Music is by Amaal Malik and lyrics by Pritam; a couple of the songs are hummable. Background score by Sandeep Shirodkar is inconsistent. Rakesh Singh as cinematographer would do well to find himself another career! All the ladies appeared with thick blusher and pale patches on the face, while Hashmi’s hairline still gives me the creeps.
And finally, the director. The guy who should know how to wield the baton but instead, is more used to holding a pen! This is Tony D’Souza’s maiden (sic!) directorial effort, he is otherwise a writer. A thousand pities then that he could do justice neither to the script nor to the job he was hired for. This is a movie that has capitalised on the real life scandal of an individual, with nothing cinematically worthy to back it up.
*Written exclusively for The Film Writers Association of India