83 and Lessons on Sporting Victories

Nostalgia is political. Kabir Khan’s 83 showcases how a record of the past responds to the cultural context of the present.

What is a biopic if not a time capsule? I am a reluctant watcher of biopics because of my naggingly complicated relationship with nostalgia. It stems mostly, I suspect, from a festering disdain for the city I grew up in. Calcutta romanticises nostalgia in a way that condemns the city to the damnation of an inescapable sepia time loop. My trysts with nostalgia negotiate complicated networks. As I watched until the end of 83, recently, a similar concoction of myth, memory and complexity swept me right back to an evening in 2003 when my mother and I had our hopes crushed, one bite of mughlai paratha at a time by the frown on an Indian skipper’s face. A skipper who stood at one end of a cricketing pitch and watched his entire team of eleven collapse like a pack of cards on the other. I speak of the ICC World Cup Final of 2003. Cricketing nostalgia is the best nostalgia of all nostalgias. It is so great that from time to time even I, with my previously explained disdain, give in and sink my teeth into it. Cricketing nostalgia tastes of 2011. Right after the taste of a bitter 2003 is the hint of an increasingly sweet 2011. In my mind the sombre grief on Sourav Ganguly’s face morphs into the confident grin on MS Dhoni’s while I watch a recreation of Kapil Dev’s World Cup Final trophy lift. And just like that, I cry. 83 goes from being the story of a cricketing tournament to the site of swirling grief and pride experienced by one Sneha Roychoudhury at ages 8 and 16 respectively.

Calling 83 a biopic may be controversial. The film, however, is about the life of a moment in sporting history: and in that it is a retelling of human interactions, emotions, and above all—memory. What draws me to this story and this film is really the historian’s burden. How we interact with memory and its authenticity is quite possibly one of the most pressing discussions that underline a film such as 83. Some reviews of the film have critically examined it for the inaccuracies in the sequence of events as presented by Kabir Khan’s narrative and have come to, I dare say, one of the most mundane conclusions of all: it is Bollywood *shirk*. Perhaps inaccuracies in storytelling is a quintessential Bollywood legacy but to assume that all of narrativisation, and more importantly dramatisation is dictated by lazy research and cheap thrills is in and of itself shoddy analysis at best.

It may not be a stretch to say that the jury on the possibility of objectively recording history is as divided, if not more, as the reviewers of 83. What I find curious is that these disagreements are noted along a very similar question—that of the authenticity of a recorded past. Can one record the past in all accuracy? Is this record, were it to exist, then the most reliable version of it? Are all recipients of historical recording passive in their interaction with events of the past? These questions when applied to a largely untelevised moment in time that has been lived and re-lived vicariously through secondary eye-witness accounts of spectators and commentators bring the 1983 World Cup to the centre of a meaningful discussion on collective and individual memory making. The very narrative of 83 becomes a text to be analysed for how the past it records responds ultimately to a politics of the present, as all history writing is set to achieve.

The frustration felt by reviewers at the “ludicrousness” of 83’s choices to draw from a set of events, what it considers the best version of an epic story could be explained much more articulately by a historian of memorialisation. There is nothing simplistic or ill-considered about the act of memorialisation. Whether meditated or instinctive, any record of the past involves the choices made by those who collate and write it. Kabir Khan’s 83 is many things but detached from the history and the political reality it seeks to record and respond to is not one. The film responds to a very specific intersection of cricketing culture and sport-related nationalism that has emerged and only progressively grown through post-liberalisation media and discourse around competitive sporting tournaments. It is true that the celebration around the 1983 World Cup was felt more parochially in the UK than it was expressed in the hypernationalist language of postcolonial patriotism. It is also likely that the sport was not televised to stop religious rioting. The scenes from the film that draw from symbols of the present are evident. Khan has swapped out the staggered, weeping, proud coach in every successful sport film for soldiers in a seemingly well defined border between India and Pakistan; he has replaced the moments of conflict and their resolution with rioting communities who come together over momentous cricketing events because, and not, in spite of his audience. And it is the inability to identify this difference in the motivation for his creative liberties that sets back the textual analysis of films such as 83.

If 83 is to be taken seriously as a record of history—one that collaborates with the participants of the events, is written after consultation and interviews with the then team and has been designed to bring to life an event that has so oft been compared to the proudest moment for the Indian Nation State since its independence– then it is imperative to understand how we remember and why. A documentary that focuses more on the technicalities and the cricketing decisions of the match has been hailed as a better and less “melodramatic” version of “the truth” around the World Cup victory and while one may concede that this film has its merits, Khan’s objective departs from documentation as it veers onto relevance. Cricket viewing– its format, the debates and discourse around it has shifted rather radically in the last almost-four decades. The roles of sports people have similarly shifted, as has, the very memory or retelling of the events of ‘83 by those who were a part of the historic moment. This is most vividly depicted in the interactions we have had with those in our families who have witnessed both the 1983 and 2011 landmarks in Indian Cricket. If one is to claim, that the expression of cheer was more that of pleasant disbelief that jingoistic chest-thumping in ‘83, one should be mindful of fathers and uncles and (more quietly) mothers and aunts who have expressed retrospective enthused passion over the reclamation of “the 83 glory” when they have more recently celebrated cricketing victories. This expression becomes embedded in historical consciousness, it cannot then be separated from depictions of sporting victories in the quest for a standardised “the truth”. Not if one wants one’s narrative to respond to existing symbols of victory and celebration within target audiences.

It has been over a decade since the victory laps of 2011. Personal memory attaches itself to momentous events in accidental marriages. That was the year I graduated from school. That was the year India swarmed into its streets, one April night—symbols of national pride in hand, thumping chests, celebrating. The year 1983 was a site of reclamation that night. I celebrated too— the end of school and the end to the wait for The Trophy were upon us. There can be no erasure of the markers of such celebrations. Nostalgia, whatever my relationship with it may be, is political. Depoliticising remembrance, personal and collective, is the curse of neoliberal alienation of the self from the community. Kabir Khan’s 83 stands at the centre of how a record of the past responds to the social, cultural and political context of the present. Its audiences, old or young, have lived through multiple historical realities since the event it encapsulates. This is an active audience that has created and recreated memory and consciousness over this period of time. It is not a passive recipient of the events of the film as it may have happened. Authenticity is a pointless goose chase and interactions with art, especially that which deals with aspects of history, have to move beyond (self)righteous demands for accuracy to what identifiable inaccuracies cater to. As a sports film, 83 fails to make any political point beyond caricatured tokenism. In this it represents, most closely, the current Indian Cricket team.  It is this resemblance that should begin more conversations around the politics of sport in India than the discrepancies in the film’s portrayal.

Sneha Roychoudhury
Sneha Roychoudhury
Sneha is a historian in the making. She takes a specific interest in sacrality as a process of nation-making in the Himalayan borderlands. She has degrees from Lady Shri Ram College and Ambedkar University, and has worked for a number of years in policy research.