May 26, 2017
Documentary featuring Sachin Tendulkar, Ajit Tendulkar, Anjali Tendulkar, Sunil Gavaskar, Vivian Richards, Virat Kohli
Hindi with English and Marathi
(This is a review of the Hindi version of Sachin: A Billion Dreams. The film has been released in several languages.)
[POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD]
When a man’s every move on the sporting field was tracked with a magnifying glass by the world cricket media and his own maniacally cricket-loving nation during his 24-year international career which is still fresh in public memory, is it possible to say anything new about him that admirers and journalists do not already know?
Is it possible to engage a viewer who is not obsessed with him and/or the game?
Any film on Sachin Tendulkar – fictionalised feature or documentary – would inevitably face these two seemingly insurmountable challenges. James Erskine’s documentary, Sachin: A Billion Dreams, seems mindful of both.
It is not too packed with jargon, thus making it accessible to those who are not committed cricket buffs. It is entertaining enough to hold the interest of non-fans watching with academic curiosity rather than devotion to an idol.
It is filled with familiar moments that could warm the hearts of the cricketing legend’s die-hard admirers, but is not an in-your-face PR exercise designed to lazily cash in on this monumentally popular Indian cricketer’s readymade fan base. In unobtrusive ways it occasionally reveals hitherto unknown facets of him as a person without stating them in black and white.
Above all else, it is a diplomatic enterprise that does not risk openly contesting the popular national sentiment surrounding Tendulkar, and completely glosses over the known controversial aspects of the star’s professional life, yet does so cleverly, so that it comes across as careful rather than worshipful or overtly, shoddily pluggish.
The kid-glove treatment, I assume, was necessary to ensure Tendulkar’s support to the project. It is a measure of Erskine’s skill as a filmmaker that, despite this, Sachin: A Billion Dreams is vastly superior to last year’s Bollywood ventures Azhar (based on the life of former Indian cricket captain Mohammad Azharuddin) and M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story.
Sachin: A Billion Dreams adopts a non-linear narrative structure, inter-cutting between Tendulkar’s phenomenal childhood-till-retirement career path and the present day. The icon’s own commentary about himself is overlaid on file footage and photographs along with comments by a dazzling array of past and present sporting megastars (Sunil Gavaskar, Vivian Richards and Virat Kohli among them), his brother Ajit Tendulkar, wife Anjali Tendulkar, commentator Harsha Bhogle and journalist Boria Majumdar. (Film stalwart Amitabh Bachchan as the lone non-cricketing talking head is a bit of a misfit here.)
The back-and-forth is smoothly executed by Erskine and editors Deepa Bhatia and Avdhesh Mohla, to the accompaniment of a throbbing soundtrack by A.R. Rahman which is one of the highlights of this film (in several portions, Rahman lets music cede the floor to the highly recognisable fan cry “Sachiiiiiin Sachiiiiiin” ringing uninterrupted on screen). Through the family album and actors standing in for the Tendulkar siblings, we meet the gifted child who, with the unstinting support of his parents and brother, Ramakant Achrekar’s no-nonsense training, his own extreme diligence and passion became the giant we know him to be.
Though much of this part of his story is already known, in Erskine’s hands it does not feel stale.
That said, it is important to stress that this is Tendulkar’s version of events, and while following him in the cricketing arena, the film looks at him with a completely uncritical eye.
Tendulkar’s rocky first stint as the country’s cricket captain, for instance, is pretty much entirely attributed to Azharuddin’s resentment. While this may possibly be true, the absence of a voice speaking for Azhar or assessing Tendulkar himself needs to be noted. Maybe Azhar is to blame, but could it also be that Tendulkar was just not a good enough leader at that point? The question remains unasked and therefore, unanswered.
Likewise, the film steers clear of a criticism that dogged Tendulkar throughout his days on the pitch: that he often prioritised personal records over team victories, that his scores tended to be record breakers in his name rather than match winners for the team. I am not for a second suggesting that this is true. However, it is an issue that has been raised by cricket watchers, and so should have been addressed, even if to be nixed with facts and figures.
I have been in at least one newsroom where a reporter who questioned Tendulkar’s attitude was silenced by an editor with the response, “but we cannot ask that, because it goes against the public mood”. I have no doubt other media editors have done likewise in the quest for populism and TRPs. This film would have been worthy of far greater respect if it had not walked on eggshells in a similar fashion.
In contrast to these portions, Sachin: A Billion Dreams becomes adventurous and truly analytical while recording Tendulkar’s personal life.
Erskine’s most intelligent moment in the film comes when he gets the Tendulkars to speak of Mrs T’s choices for the family. Sachin is shown informing us unequivocally that Anjali told him she wanted to quit her career as a doctor, whereas in the next shot the lady herself recalls Sachin telling her that one of them would have to leave their career. Of course we all know he did not mean himself, especially when Erskine follows that up with a soundbite from Sachin saying he needed a life partner who would fully understand his dreams. And so, Anjali Tendulkar tells us, she quit being a medical practitioner although she was an MD in Paediatrics. Legend or not, we see here that Sachin Tendulkar is no different from every patriarchal chappie out there who places his dreams and his goals above everything else in his family’s journey.
It is the film’s most quietly observant, best-edited passage, not appearing to pass judgement at all, yet in the obviously well-thought-out placement of those bites, revealing volumes.
Throughout the film, the chronicling of Tendulkar’s personal life scores over the take on his work life. His childhood photographs and home video footage from back then till the present day are thoroughly charming. The romance with Anjali is recounted sweetly and with humour, without for a moment turning mushy or silly as such material can often be. It is also a pleasure to see this intensely private man letting us in on so many decidedly intimate moments of his life. As a viewer, one can only feel gratitude.
This then is Sachin: A Billion Dreams – a film that is not as much as it could have been on some fronts, yet elsewhere is a lot more than it seems to be. It is not an objective biography, yet thankfully it is far from being a hagiography either.
Cricket fans will have their own take on it, but as someone who no longer cares for the game but cares a lot about cinema, I can tell you that despite my disappointment at the rose-tinted view, I came away from the theatre this morning feeling slightly emotional and very inspired. Of course Sachin Tendulkar is not a saint. How many human beings do you know who are? It is impossible though not to learn something from James Erskine’s telling of this extraordinary real-life tale, and from that 16-year-old debutant who turned his natural genius into an unparalleled, record-smashing career that has made him the international hero he is today.
Rating (out of five stars): **3/4
CBFC Rating (India):
This review has also been published on Firstpost:
Poster courtesy: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sachin:_A_Billion_Dreams