Sunday, September 23, 2012


Release date:
September 21, 2012
Stevan Riley
Talking Heads:
Clive Lloyd, Vivian Richards, Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Colin Croft, Joel Garner and more


You don’t have to be a cricket maniac to love this documentary. Look at me, founder of the #ihatecricket club on Twitter, irritated beyond words in recent years by the overdose of the game in our country and the national worship of cricketers to the exclusion of all other sportspersons ... yet so in love with this film! Back in the 1980s, long before we were flooded with too much of a good thing, I do remember enjoying matches when the family would gather round the TV and watch the likes of Clive Lloyd, Vivian Richards, Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Joel Garner, Malcolm Marshall, Gordon Greenidge and Desmond Haynes demolish pretty much every opposition. I remember that when India won the 1983 World Cup, I actually felt sad for Lloyd because to me he seemed like such a gentle giant. I remember too having arguments with people who referred to the Windies as “ugly … black devils” (an early lesson for a child growing up in New Delhi that racism and colour prejudice are such an Indian trademark). But childhood memories are not the primary reason why this film worked so well for me. Beyond my own personal nostalgia, there’s the fact that director Stevan Riley’s excellent documentary recognises that sport is never just sport: that combined with the recreational and fitness benefits is the fact that the story of any sport is also political, social and cultural, perhaps never more so than with this particular cricket team.


Fire In Babylon takes us back to the era when the West Indies dominated world cricket. We watch as the team metamorphosed from fun, happy-go-lucky players to Lloyd’s near-unbeatable men, from easygoing “Calypso Cricketers” to life-threatening menaces on the field. As that happens, the film also takes us through the games people played on the West Indian cricket board, racial tensions surfacing every time the team played abroad, and the impact on the psyche of the people in a group of islands in the Atlantic when their team began to dominate a sport introduced to them by a colonising power. As a talking head in the documentary points out, when white Australian bowlers were aggressive on the field, it was considered part of the game, but when a quartet of black West Indians took the danger levels several notches higher, the international cricketing establishment cried foul. Through wonderfully relaxed interviews with West Indian cricketing legends of the time and significant commentators from the Caribbean, we are guided through 15 years when these men destroyed almost everything and everyone in their path on a cricket field.


It’s as much a film about cricket as it is about black pride, the festering wounds of slavery and the worldwide struggle against white oppression. Lloyd’s brilliant strategising, Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket and Croft’s decision to play in South Africa despite its apartheid policies … you will find it all here, blended joyously with music from the islands, archival footage of matches, even some delightful songs about individual West Indian players.


If there is a grouse against Fire In Babylon, it is that it chooses to gloss over anything that might dilute the arguments it proposes. Yes, the global cricketing set-up did react differently to Lillee-Thomson and Roberts-Garner-Holding-Croft, but it’s not like the Australians never faced criticism. And while it’s amusing to see the film diplomatically suggest that the Indian team touring West Indies in 1976 were wimps, Babylon would have been more balanced if there was at least a passing discussion about the ethics of deliberately trying to cause injury in a non-contact sport and the moral issues involved in bouncers-designed-to-injure-batsmen. All criticism of the West Indian bowlers of the time can’t be conveniently dismissed as racist. That Fire In Babylon does not encourage a debate on the matter is a flaw.

The film also appears to ignore developments that could diminish the positivity of its story. “No other sporting team in any discipline anywhere in the world dominated their sport for 15 years,” Michael Holding (now a deliciously dignified elderly gentleman) points out in one of his interviews. And so we are shown all the team’s series victories but the failure to win the World Cup for a third time in a row – when those one-time wimps romped home in 1983 – is ignored. Would West Indian supremacy have looked any less admirable if we had been shown how they recovered from setbacks even as they ruled? I think not.   

However, I guess the other way of looking at it could be that Fire In Babylon is being told completely from a West Indian point of view, and this is perhaps how West Indies wants to look back. Either way, in the ultimate analysis, this is a fabulous film. It’s a war cry against slavery and an ode to the underdog. It’s a wistful ride for those who can’t help but get a lump in the throat at the sight of those now-graying cricketing greats looking back at the glory days. It’s goosebump-inducing to once again watch footage of Viv Richards sauntering on to a field, casually chewing gum as if he had not a care in the world, and then fast forward to him now, explaining the logic behind that gum. Yes people, there was a logic. This is a dead serious documentary but it’s as entertaining as any fiction feature could be with the adrenaline rush that a thriller might provide. Stevan Riley, you have made a beautiful film!

Rating (out of five): ****

CBFC Rating (India):
Running time:
85 minutes


1 comment:

  1. Dear Anna. Unfortunately I did not watch the movie as the theaters at Hyderabad did not release the movie. But then it is so useful that I religiously follow your reviews that I savored the injection of an enjoyable rush of nostalgia. Yes , when India won the world cup my friend was mourning the defeat of the imperious west indians , such was their fan following. The swagger of King Viv , the silken smooth Holding and speed gun Andy Roberts captured the imagination of fans.

    thanks for your crisp review ..i am left feeling deprived if not having watched the film and will surely catch up..

    Between, I have heard great things about the Sena Documentary as well..While I havent watched it either will be nice to see you pen your review on the documentary as well.