The Cricket Pitch as Battleground in Indian Cinema

If cricket in India is no less important than religion, then films like ‘83’ and ‘M.S. Dhoni’ have deified the sport and its players beyond reproach.

Meher Manda

January 25, 2022

The Cricket Pitch as Battleground in Indian Cinema
Ranveer Sing in '83'

On June 9, 1983, the Indian cricket team, led by new captain Kapil Dev, faced returning champions West Indies in their first game of the 1983 Cricket World Cup in Manchester, England. Only four years ago, on the same date, the mighty West Indies — who had won the first two World Cups in 1975 and 1979 — had served India an easy, crushing loss. No one was betting on a winning performance from the Indian players, not even veteran cricket journalist Ayaz Memon, who forwent what he considered a losing match to watch New Zealand play instead. But the rag-tag Indian team that squared off against West Indian cricketing greats such as Clive Lloyd, Malcolm Marshall, Vivian Richards emerged — subverting all expectations — victorious. The win ignited hope of a World Cup win for India, which it later stunningly delivered.

Curiously, director Kabir Khan’s 83 (2021), which recreates the tournament that changed India’s cricket fortunes, juxtaposes shots of the sprightly, chummy Indian team facing the West Indies with images of the Indian army huddled around a radio as the Pakistani army shells their cantonment with bombs. Though the two neighboring countries have gone to war several times, there is no evidence that any bombing took place at the border in 1983 to coincide with the World Cup. Yet, Khan uses the montage not once but again and again with every game India plays. The team’s victory is a joyous offering to the toiling army, its defeat yet another debilitating loss to soldiers. 

The film further analogizes India’s pursuit of the World Cup title to the struggle for independence, only this time the country isn’t fighting for freedom but for respect. 83 likens Kapil Dev, the loudest believer in the underdog team’s victory, to a freedom fighter and depicts Prime Minister Indira Gandhi using India’s success to heal communal tension in the fictitious town of Nawabpur. The movie asks us: can a film about cricket ever be free of political baggage?