Kabir Khan Director’s Cut: On Ranveer Singh, patriotism without chest-thumping in 83, the ‘Madrasi’ stereotype, and Bajrangi 2
Kabir Khan Director’s Cut: On Ranveer Singh, patriotism without chest-thumping in 83, the ‘Madrasi’ stereotype, and Bajrangi 2
Kabir Khan is not your everyday Hindi filmmaker. Islamophobia was on the rise when he made Bajrangi Bhaijaan (2015), the story of a devout Hindu befriending a Pakistani Muslim child. Hindi cinema now routinely equates patriotism with chest-thumping and vendetta, but Khan chose to make a film on one of India’s most iconic sporting victories – the 1983 cricket World Cup win – without delivering high-decibel speeches or villainising opposing teams.
Excerpts from their conversation
Did the 1983 team ask for the right to see the first cut or sign off on the final cut of 83?
Not once. We signed a contract laying out that we will make this film based on their stories but once we’ve got the material from them it’s gonna be my film. They appointed Balwinder Singh Sandhu as the point person for our queries. If he didn’t have an answer for us, he’d WhatsApp the team and get back to us – they have a WhatsApp group they call Champions Forever where they communicate daily. So Ballu Sir had access to the script, but he viewed it only in terms of the technicalities. I leaned heavily on him, got lots of stories from him, but never once did he pass judgement on how I’d constructed scenes or dialogues.
This is very, very rare. It’s not natural to get this high profile a story and not have someone breathing down your neck.
The 1983 win is in the public realm. Did you legally need the squad’s permission for this film, or did you want it to get their cooperation?
It is not only their cooperation. You don’t want to do a film like 83 if the 1983 team doesn’t want you to make it – it wouldn’t be in the right spirit.
And yes, I don’t need their permission for what is in the public domain, but you need rights from people if you’re going into territories not in the public domain.
Because this is a feature, not a documentary…
Yes, because a feature recreates and re-enacts what happened. There are ways around that, like The Accidental Prime Minister where they got the rights to Sanjaya Baru’s book so they didn’t need Manmohan Singh’s rights. It depends on why you want to do a story. ’83 is such a glorious story that even if I want to, there’s no dirt to dig. Whatever little uncomfortable dynamics there were between, say, Kapil Dev and Sunil Gavaskar, they’re so magnanimous, they said, please go ahead.
The only change Gavaskar asked for was when I said I’m doing this scene where he’s nursing a drink. He said: “In those days I didn’t drink, so can we make it a coffee?” But he never said “don’t show what Kapil said” or “don’t show how I reacted”. Never again in my life will I get to work with such gentlemen. I know what happens otherwise in biopics where you need permission. Some of them want to whitewash so much. 83 is a rare experience.
Imagine a team as iconic as this, with people as iconic as several members of this team, after signing off the film to me, to say they’ll watch it at the premiere. How secure can you be? You’ve entrusted your life to somebody and you’re not even gonna watch it 10 days earlier so that you have some reaction time. The entire team got together at the premiere and watched 83 with the janta. That is unprecedented.
When you approached Ranveer Singh, had you envisioned how closely you could make him resemble Kapil with prosthetics?
There are no prosthetics on Ranveer or the others. I knew that while shooting they’ll be playing cricket for 10 hours a day, so my first brief to Gaikwad Sir (makeup designer Vikram Gaikwad) was “no prosthetics”. I began with jaw pads for Ranveer but removed that because they were uncomfortable. So the only physically altering element was dentures for the front two teeth, and lenses because Kapil Sir has light brown eyes.
Ranveer asked, “Sir, why me as Kapil?” I said, “Ranveer, this is not a lookalike contest.” I wanted him to get Kapil’s persona right, his energy, physicality, body language. It’s not about trying to look exactly like Kapil. If we wanted, we could have done that even more, but half the reviews have said “we couldn’t see Ranveer, we could only see Kapil”, and the credit for that goes to Gaikwad Sir who put together the look and to Ranveer. If you break down his photograph feature by feature, not one feature matches. People don’t realise it’s the expressions that make him look like Kapil. That’s the brilliance of Ranveer Singh.
Ranveer and I lived for 15 days at Kapil’s house in Sunder Nagar. We just latched on to him so that Ranveer could observe everything about him and imbibe the Kapilness of Kapil. That’s what he’s brought to the film.
He felt he needed to be very correct while portraying Kapil. Because Kapil is a tricky character. You can easily make him a caricature. The peculiar way of speaking can make people think it’s easy for actors to play him because all you have to do is that. But if Ranveer started mimicking Kapil, he’d make a caricature. He never crossed that line. He speaks in that broken English and brings tears to your eyes. We weren’t laughing when he speaks.
When Charlize Theron played the American journalist Megyn Kelly in Bombshell, she looked almost like her clone. The makeup won an Oscar, but there’s a view that that’s not acting because we’re going to watch an actor play a part, not a carbon copy.
Because at some point, Anna, the audience has to say, “Okay, this is Ranveer. He’s playing Kapil. Let’s get on with it.” Fifteen minutes into the film, if people are still analysing his looks, then anyway I’ve lost the battle, because they’re not into my film. Within 15-20 minutes, I want them sucked into my world and going along with the actors I’ve chosen to portray these characters.
The other player who could have become a caricature if you just crossed a line…
Yes. Especially because of Hindi cinema’s ‘Madrasi’ stereotype. But Jiiva was amazing.
Yeah he was. But when I met him in Chennai, he said, “Sir, I don’t speak Hindi.” I said, “Jiiva, that’s perfect – nor can Srikkanth. Try struggling with Hindi the way Srikkanth struggled with it and you’re bang on. I’m not changing you and making you a full Hindi speaker because it’s a mainstream Hindi film.”
Cheeka is too well-known in India and an icon in Chennai – people would have thrown shoes at me if I’d taken away that character from him. So I said: “All you have to do is spend time with Cheeka Sir and get the way he uses the language. Don’t get a Hindi tutor for yourself.”
Whenever Cheeka speaks, he’s 50 per cent Hindi, 50 per cent English, some 10-15 per cent Tamil also. That’s all I needed from Jiiva. There was no pressure on him to fit a Hindi film stereotype of a Cheeka, he just had to play Cheeka, which then came naturally to him because he again spent time with him and got all the nuances.
83 shows Roger Binny feeling hurt by his teammates’ constant jokes about his identity. What exactly was he upset about?
What I found sweet was that actually Roger Binny never felt upset about the jokes the boys used to make on him. He smiled and took it in his stride. But I also wanted to show that that doesn’t mean one continues to do that all the time. There are times when you’re feeling low, when it can prick you.
They used to tease him, saying, “Angrez, tere ko anthem gavaayenge.” I think you’re referring to that scene in which Binny is sulking because Kapil gave him a mouthful, and Ballu tries to cheer him up, saying, “Don’t worry, they won’t make you sing the anthem at the High Commission. Come for the party”, and Binny turns around and says, “There’s no point in singing the national anthem unless it makes a person’s chest swell every time it’s sung.” I don’t over-intellectualise this stuff because many of my decisions for films are gut instinct, but I just felt that was the right moment to make that little statement on how we stereotype people, we keep making jokes especially with people who are not from that acceptable mould of what we consider Indian, like Roger Binny – he was this English-speaking, half-Scot cricketer. That scene didn’t really happen the way it’s been written though. It’s true they used to joke about the national anthem, but it didn’t play out the way I wrote it.
Was the team okay with this fictionalisation?
Binny Sir is a man of few words, and I did probe him that “Did you ever feel bad?” Now they’re far removed from what happened, and he used to be good-humoured and say, “No, no, it’s part of the game” and obviously the team also always did it in good humour – I don’t think they ever did it when they knew Roger’s not feeling good about this. But sometimes, using the material in hand, you make a comment on things you want to comment on, which can resonate even with today’s audience.
And sometimes, maybe without someone actually saying it in black and white, you sensed that perhaps Binny had this feeling though he didn’t articulate it?
Of course. Even Sunil Valson…I asked Wally Sir 100 times: “How can it be that you did not feel bad, Sir? You’re a member of the 1983 World Cup winning team but you didn’t play a single match.” He’d say, “No, it’s just an honour to be there.” But it’s not possible... So he didn’t tell me he felt bad in that match when he was about to bowl and got replaced again, but I as a filmmaker had to show a moment in which you see pain and disappointment in Badree’s eyes. (R. Badree plays Valson in 83.) This again is an example of a moment that was not told to me in that way but that I sensed must have happened.
And these scenes with Valson and Binny did not make the team uncomfortable?
Not at all. Somebody would have told me. I am telling you, those guys are a rare breed.
Taking off from the scene with Binny, some people argue that marginalised and minority communities are humourless, that political correctness is ruining comedy in the arts and fun and banter in personal spaces. What’s your position on this?
There has to be a midway. As an individual, I’m not politically correct always. I’m politically incorrect more times than not with close friends. We all are. But you have that sense of this far and no further, that I can push this guy this much but beyond this he’ll feel bad and that’s not cool. Even as a filmmaker, you have that sense. Everyone has to strike a balance for themselves. There are no rules that you should or should not do this.
Cinema and writing that is 100 per cent politically correct would make the world boring. You have to take chances in some areas, but you have to have that gut instinct that tells you, this joke you can push and people will not really mind.
I’ve always gone by my gut instinct even in films where some things would have been really contentious, like Bajrangi Bhaijaan. Touchwood, till now it has worked for me.
What about inter-personal interactions? Members of the Sikh community once went to court seeking a ban on “Sardar jokes”. Some of them pointed out that Sikh kids are ragged all the time in school.
I absolutely agree. Therefore I think one needs to be sensitive. These Sardar jokes can go on and on and on, of course it will be offensive.
Krishnamachari Srikkanth says in 83, “We won our way here. We didn’t come into the semi-final through any quota.”
I’m told people got upset because they feel maybe “quota” was used with the reference of reservations, but it was not at all meant with that connotation. Cheeka was saying India didn’t have a special category or quota to come in as a nation into the World Cup semi-finals. He did not at all mean it in the context of reservations back home, but if that’s how it has been understood by some people, we’re really sorry. Our intent was never to inadvertently hurt anybody’s emotions about that.
Because the word “quota” is used in India in the context of reservations, I think it triggered some emotions with people but it was not meant that way. It was basically used with the literal dictionary meaning of “quota”, that India didn’t have a special quota to come into the semis, so why are we apologetic about it, we fought our way through. He meant it in that context.
As a politically aware person, you know “quota” is used derisively in common parlance in India.
Absolutely. So many things go into a film that sometimes your radar doesn’t pick up everything that can potentially hurt people, and this must have been one of those. But the intention was never in that context. That line was never meant to be understood in the context of reservations.
Setting Srikkanth aside for a moment, does the use of that line in 83 in any way reflect your views on reservations for oppressed castes in India?
No, but that scene has nothing to do with reservations. That’s exactly what I’m trying to say –it’s never used in that context. It was used in the sense of the dictionary meaning of “quota”.
83 had its world premiere at the Red Sea Festival in Saudi Arabia. You have been vocal about majoritarianism in India and the Taliban in Afghanistan. How then did you screen your film at a festival backed by one of the world’s most repressive regimes?
To be honest, the thought did come to us. But when we’re engaging with the festival authorities, you realise there’s some level of separation especially when it comes to film festivals where you have to start not identifying them so strongly with the regime. I know for a fact that yes, especially in Saudi Arabia the fest will be funded by the regime, it would not be as independent as some other international festivals, but that’s the call we took, that do we identify the Red Sea Film Festival as being an official festival of the Saudi regime, or do we look at it the way we perceive other festivals which are more independent? I went with the latter approach. That’s how we decided to open there.
But the thought did occur to you?
Yes. Whenever you go somewhere, you think about the backdrop, weigh the pros and cons, and take a decision.
Could you have done more justice to Sandeep Patil, Ravi Shastri and Vengsarkar in 83?
I was aware, Anna, that some players will not shine through as much as others. After two years of research, I had a mountain of anecdotes and my challenge was to string them into a screenplay for a 2-1/2 hour film. For me, everybody’s anecdotes had to fit the narrative arc of what happened in those 25 days with the team. In that process, some stories were dropped, some characters come out more memorable, but the attempt was always to make a team film. And I’ve not heard anyone say it wasn’t a team film, which is unexpected when a star of Ranveer’s stature plays a living legend like Kapil Dev.
There’s an interesting anecdote with Srikkanth that I can now share. At one point well into the journey, Cheeka Sir said, “See, Kabir, I know what Kapil is, I love and admire him”, like all the players are when you get them started on Kapil, they go starry-eyed and weak-kneed even today and say, “If it wasn’t for Kapil we would not have got this Cup. That man’s conviction was so unbelievable, that we used to laugh at him as was shown in the film.” So Cheeka said, “I know all that, but my character will register no, Kabir? People won’t come back saying, ‘Cheeka, where were you?’” I said, “What are you saying Sir? Why would you even think that?” So he said, “No ya, I know lot of pressure is there when you guys make a film. I just…I should register.” So I said, “All I can say, Sir, is, wait till you see the film.” And when he saw 83, he was gracious enough to say, “There was not one character to whom you didn’t do justice?” Yes, maybe you feel Patil was not given as much justice as the others. Shastri was new and did not contribute too much to the tournament. I was wary of Shastri’s reaction because he was the only one we could not meet till the film was made – as the Indian team coach, he was always out. But not one person in this amazing group said, “You showed me less.” Shastri could have. He’s such a star. But no, he hugged me, and later in an interview said he was crying throughout the film.
I was very, very clear about just one thing, Anna: I wanted all of them to look different, sound different and come together as a team.
In a scene in 83, on being insulted by an official in England, the Indian team manager says that India gained Independence decades earlier but was yet to gain respect. What was your brief to actor Pankaj Tripathi that ensured the difference in tone between 83 and conventional, bombastic patriotic Hindi films?
He’s an intelligent actor. When we read this scene together, it was clear there will be hurt in his voice, not something that would say, “Okay Kapil Dev, take revenge on those white bastards.” So I think it came instinctively.
I’d narrated the scene to him, he understood perfectly, then brought his own sensibility to it and said it exactly the way I would have directed him to do it.
That line was never gonna be bombastic, jingoistic and loud. It was always going to be said subtly in a hurt manner. That’s what brings tears to you. If he’d said it loudly and aggressively, I don’t think it would have had the impact it has now.
Does the 1983 victory lend itself to cinema even more now than it did back then, because of the current socio-political context?
The 1983 World Cup win lends itself to any time in our history and definitely to the current times. These men have taught us something through their journey in achieving the Cup. Their story would have been relevant in a film 20 years ago, it’s relevant today, it’ll probably be relevant 20 years from now.
In my review I wrote, that 83 “is a stirring reminder of a time when pride in a national team’s achievement united India and national pride had not yet been weaponised by the mob”. Do you feel nostalgic about such a time?
Yeah, and I think that reflects in the film, because you’re right – what patriotism meant for us was different then, and that’s how patriotism has been shown in 83. You don’t need to always have a counterpoint or a villain to express your patriotism. There are no villains in 83. West Indies are a formidable team out to defeat you, but they’re not villains, not enemies, and you don’t need to view them as enemies to bring out your patriotism. That’s what, in a sense, 83 shows – that just pride in their country, what these men did for the country, is patriotism. They don’t need to thump their chests, they don’t give sloganeering speeches, they just go out and play for the country and win the World Cup for the country. That’s pure patriotism for me.
What’s next from you?
I am working on two scripts but it’s too early to say anything.
Salman Khan is enthusiastic about a Bajrangi 2.
I know. The thing is, I would never make Bajrangi 2 because it is a sequel of a successful film, I’d make it if there’s an exciting story. So I’d love to look at the script when Vijayendra Prasad Sir finishes it.
I’ve never made sequels to any of my films. Even the Ek Tha Tiger sequels are by other filmmakers. The idea of a sequel does not excite me. The script must excite me. So if the script is exciting and it is a Bajrangi sequel, I would love to do it.
Anna M.M. Vetticad is an award-winning journalist and author of The Adventures of an Intrepid Film Critic. She specialises in the intersection of cinema with feminist and other socio-political concerns. Twitter: @annavetticad, Instagram: @annammvetticad, Facebook: AnnaMMVetticadOfficial
RELATED LINK: For Anna M.M. Vetticad’s Review Of 83, Click Here
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