I’m convinced that most if not all mainstream biopics tend to be hagiographies, at least to some extent. After all, if a major production house is willing to finance a movie with many crores at stake, it’s natural that they would want to avoid having to fight off several lawsuits.
This is true of films like Rahasya (2015) and Talvar (2015), which both told the story of the Aarushi murder case by changing the names of the people involved ever so slightly, or this week’s release, Azhar, a look at the life of former cricket captain Mohammad Azharuddin, who has lent his support to the film.
In such cases, where it’s impossible to be truly objective for the sake of practicality, the least a film can do is try and tell its character’s story as honestly as possible, and leave some room for the audience to draw its own conclusions. However, Azhar, directed by Tony D’Souza (Blue, Boss), has no such ambitions. Starring Emraan Hashmi in the lead role, it is quite content with being a Jannat-esque entertainer.
That it constantly attempts to lionise Azharuddin — who was famously banned from the game on charges of match-fixing in 2000, and exonerated just four years ago by the Andhra Pradesh High Court for lack of evidence — is only one of its sins. Details about the cricketer’s life that are public knowledge — his meetings with the bookie known as MK (called MK Sharma here and played by Rajesh Sharma), his extramarital affair with the actress Sangeeta (Nargis Fakhri, playing a fictionalised version of former actress Sangeeta Bijlani) — are duly touched upon, but in a way that constantly suggests the reel Azhar is a hero we must root for, rather than a flawed individual.
Hashmi, as the gifted cricketer, puts a lot of effort into his performance, which shows. His imitations of Azharuddin’s mannerisms — the distinctive batting stance, his tendency to tilt his head sideways, that signature ‘flick of the wrists’ — are all fairly impressive. But his performance as a whole is disastrously uneven. One moment he’s succeeding in emulating Azhar’s abrupt style of speaking; the next, he's sounding like himself. This film, perhaps more than any other, exposes his biggest shortcoming as an actor: at best, he is competent but rarely interesting or surprising (a notable exception being his career-best turn in Dibakar Banerjee’s 2012 drama Shanghai).
As seems to be par for the course in Bollywood nowadays, the background music is a clichéd, over-the-top approximation of every Hans Zimmer action movie score ever. This combination is particularly indigestible in some of the courtroom scenes, where Azhar’s lawyer friend Reddy (Kunal Roy Kapur, annoyingly hammy), a nervous Nellie type, attempts to bring comic relief to tense situations; meanwhile, the music suggests that Batman is about to BASE jump off a skyscraper.
Then, of course, there’s the usual melodrama that you’d expect from such a film. Most of it falls flat, though, since the script doesn’t bother to flesh out any character that isn’t its protagonist.
It doesn’t help that the production design is fairly lazy and tacky. The film jumps eras and locations very frequently, with exterior locations in London and Hyderabad looking like the present even when we’re told it’s the ‘90s. The make-up is too visible. Kapur’s receding hairline is very clearly a wig. Every fake moustache in this film seems to be gunning for next year’s ‘Dadasaheb Phalke’ Award for Best Fake Moustache. Lara Dutta plays a well-heeled, irritable prosecuting lawyer from London whose brief seems to have been: "You're a single mother and everyone around you is a five-year-old on a sugar high".
Then, of course, there’s the usual melodrama that you’d expect from such a film. Most of it falls flat, though, since the script doesn’t bother to flesh out any character that isn’t its protagonist. The plight experienced by both Azhar’s wife Naureen (Prachi Desai) and Sangeeta barely registers. All the glycerine in the world can’t make up for the fact that the film treats them as plot points, not actual characters. Then again, while Desai at least makes a valiant attempt to perform (although strictly in TV serial bahu mode), Fakhri looks like she’s finding it hard to take any of this seriously; as a result, it’s impossible to take her seriously.
The only fleeting pleasures to be found in Azhar are when it takes us to a cricket ground. Despite obviously visible green-screen work, many of them are staged quite satisfactorily and add some joy to the proceedings. Aside from that, it is amusing to see Manjot Singh and Gautam Gulati play fictionalised versions of Navjot Singh Sidhu and Ravi Shastri, even though one can’t call them very good performances.
What a pity, though. Azhar could honestly have been a great biopic, even within its own self-imposed limitations. Instead, like Azharuddin, it chooses to ignore its own potential and thereby shoots itself in the foot.
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