Salt-and-pepper hair pulled back in a ponytail. A smart blue suit teamed with a classic yet fun striped shirt. A smile on his face and lots of memories to share. That’s the Kapil Dev we met on Monday morning. Suave and charismatic. India’s first World Cup-winning cricket captain who led his ‘Devils’ to an unparalleled victory 38 years ago against the mighty West Indies. He was in town to talk about 83, the Kabir Khan film that captures this glorious chapter and is slated to release on December 24. t2 sat Kapil and Kabir down for a candid chat at the SVF office on the 17th floor of Acropolis mall. SVF is the eastern India distributor for 83.
Kapil sir, this has got to be one of the best birthday gifts of your life! 83 releases two weeks before your 63rd birthday.
Kapil: I don’t have a single birthday and celebrate three-four times a year. We celebrate on June 25, the day we won the World Cup. When the entire country celebrates with you, you feel much happier. But yes, this is coming right before my birthday and I can now send people to go and watch the movie.
The trailer has made a lot of us emotional. What memories from the making did it bring back given that you have had to wait for so long?
Kapil: Of course it made me emotional. My daughter saw me trying to hold back my emotions and asked me, ‘Dad if you want to react, react. Why are you withholding?’ But it’s not like I don’t want to react but when you see yourself like that, you don’t know how to! I just couldn’t! Hindi mein kehte hai ‘nazar na lag jaaye!’
Kabir, it’s a passion project you were just saying. So what’s your mindset, now that the film is finally releasing after multiple reschedules?
Kabir: Just the way Kapil sir said that they had the belief that they can do it, I had the belief in this film. I knew it would stand the test of time. Despite the lockdown and months of waiting, I always had the confidence that this would pass and we would come and release the film in the theatres. This film is designed for the theatre. We want the theatres to become a stadium when this film is being watched.
Given that a lot of sports biopics and recreations of big moments and wins in sport have been done in Hindi films over the years, were you a little surprised that the story of India’s historic ’83 win is being told only now? Or do you feel that everything has its right time?
Kapil: No, I think it’s still early! Any movie like that which is based on an event, should come after 40-50 years. That would be the right time. Not to be critical but movies have come out where the people themselves are in it. One is unable to give a genuine picture in such cases — to tell what had really happened. Had we waited a while longer, I would have been fine but I am glad it’s happening after 38 years!
There must have been several reasons, but what was the primary reason that made you want to tell this story of India’s 1983 World Cup win?
Kabir: For me, it was not about cricket honestly. A sports film is never watched for the sport, it’s for the human drama. When I read the material for the first time, there was a lump in my throat. It’s not the cricket that will do this to you; it’s the human story. That’s the reason I picked it up — it’s the classic underdog story. When nobody believed in them and some of them didn’t believe in themselves — how they as a team held each other and created history.
What were the biggest challenges from the experience of making 83?
Kabir: The challenge was not that it is a sports film. The challenge was that it was an iconic event that has to be recreated, an event that everyone above the age of 45 remembers from what they saw and the rest can see it on YouTube. It is easy for me to create a team of cricketers and make a film. It is not easy to create a team of cricketers who have to play exactly the same way the players of 1983 played. You mentioned Harrdy Sandhu. He is a gifted cricketer and he has played
U-19 India. He could have played a cricketer without training, but he had to play Madan Lal... that is the challenge. Even he has to train for five months to play Madan Lal. For Ranveer, it would have been much easier if he had to play an all-rounder, but he has played the greatest all-rounder we’ve ever known.
This was like attempting to climb a mountain. Where did you start?
Kabir: At the bottom! (Laughs) The prep was huge and that is what made this process all the more enjoyable. As a film-maker and storyteller, I love the process. My documentary-film-making background brings in the discipline of researching. For something like this, you have to get everything right. The research was also extremely enjoyable because it was also a discovery. It’s not that I have been following this all my life, but suddenly I am faced with the prospect of recreating this moment and I have to get all the facts right. I am not a cricket buff so I don’t know facts about the sport but about 1983, I know everything! Everywhere I go, in every country, someone will show up and say, ‘You know this happened’, and this time I want to be able to turn around and say ‘Yes, I know!’
Did you consult the team for your casting process?
Kabir: No, we didn’t go back to the team for all these decisions. We always did go for advice to Balwinder Singh Sandhu because Ballu sir had been given, in some way, the mandate by the team. If he was okay with it, the team was okay with it. So I would lean very heavily on him to say that ‘Okay, this actor is good but can he be trained to be Madan Lal? That’s your call’. I remember the first day Saqib Saleem came for his auditions for Jimmy Amarnath. We asked him to get into the nets because it was the first step followed by the acting auditions! As Saqib picked up the bat and started walking, Ballu sir said ‘Yeh cricket khelta hai (he plays cricket)!’ There is a certain body language. For Ranveer too, there was this training involved. I remember Ballu sir saying to him, ‘If you are going to run and jump and leap like Kapil Dev and then land on your feet like him, every single time you are landing with nine times your body weight on your ankles. So I need you to completely change your body even to become Kapil Dev’. And he did it! Some of the boys trained for a year!
Kapil: Ranveer trained for more than eight months. When I saw him for the first time, his muscles were bigger than my thigh! He looked more like Muhammad Ali than me — so strong!
Kabir: I think he was training for Padmaavat at that time.
Kapil: I told him he would have to reduce. He used to go 16 hours without food and then also I used to get worried! They were working so fast; as a sportsman, I got a little bit scared. To us, fitness is the only thing in the end.
Kapil sir, what do you think makes Kabir Khan the right person to direct this film?
Kapil: I think listening to him is the best part of being associated closely with him. His energy is infectious. It used to make me wonder if he was faking it! (Laughs) But no, his passion for the art makes spending time with him extremely enjoyable.
Kabir: I feel so lucky! I say this often that sometimes the film-maker doesn’t choose the story. The story chooses them. Now when I am making this film, half the industry tells me, ‘Oh, we would give our right arm to make this story’, and I am wondering ‘Brother, why didn’t you?’ The story has been there for 38 years and it just landed in my lap. So I am extremely privileged that the story has chosen me.
Kabir, how did the fanboy in you react? There was literally a galaxy of stars...
Kabir: I didn’t take that too seriously because I would just crumble otherwise. Yes, I was always aware of the huge responsibility I had as a storyteller. If you have a story like 83 and you are not able to deliver the goods, you might as well go to the Himalayas and retire. We were always convinced that the movie had to move the country the way the event moved the country. Obviously we are never going to match the euphoria of what happened in 1983 but in some small way, I want to replicate those emotions of feeling proud to be an Indian.
Kapil sir, what was your first reaction on seeing Ranveer Singh as you?
Kapil: Wonderful! I have watched a few of his movies and saw him bubbling with so much energy. We people believe in saying ‘cross your fingers and hope nothing goes wrong’. Even when he was training, I was so worried about him injuring himself. That’s the most important thing because the whole movie can stand still if he hurts himself. Kabir has done so much research on what was happening back home — there are parts we ourselves don’t know because we were somewhere else. I would love to see those scenes. People’s reactions!
Kabir, your films always have an element of patriotism. 83 too is an ode to the love for the motherland, isn’t it?
Kabir: Absolutely! I think it was a great opportunity for me to show what patriotism truly is. Somehow, a new brand of nationalism has overtaken what true patriotism is. 83 is hugely patriotic. It shows a team doing something for their country against all odds and as Indians, there is no way one won’t feel proud of their achievements. You don’t need to have slogans or chest thumps — this is patriotism in its truest form.
Kapil: This was in Tunbridge. They were shooting for the Zimbabwe match and he was there... Kabir: The famous Natraj shot. Kapil: Kabir and their team said ‘do it’... Kabir: On the same pitch that he did 38 years ago... the people of Tunbridge were so happy that they instituted a plaque there, which basically commemorates the historic innings and the recreation of that innings for the film. Every Indian tourist who goes to England must now go to Tunbridge and see that plaque.
Where were you on June 25, 1983?
Kabir: I was in Hyderabad, my home town. I was in school. I don’t have very distinct memories of watching the World Cup because I was very young but I remember very distinctly the reaction to the win! At that point in time, at that age I didn’t quite understand why people are going bananas? Why are grown-up men crying? Why are there fireworks in June? It is now that I realise why and I have made every effort to recreate that madness and euphoria.
To both of you, who was the best student on the sets?
Kabir: For me I would definitely say and this is not taking away from the other boys that Ranveer led by example, just the way Kapil sir led by example. He took on that mantle. Shooting in England for four months, in summer, lots of distractions can be there, but that boy would train, play and go back to his hotel, sleep and wake up at five in the morning. A lot of the boys who did go out to the pubs would feel really guilty that arre captain toh so raha hai, hum ja rahein hain, which is exactly what happened in 1983 in June, where Kapil sir as they would say would have a glass of milk and go to sleep, but some of the boys would go to the pubs....
Kapil: ...Ranveer spent 10 days with me... six hours in June, July heat in Delhi, he was bowling and batting for five-six hours and I was worried, but he pulled through. He is so strong mentally and said he wanted to learn. He must have seen the footage many times. I can’t tell him anything... I am not the coach, Ballu (Balwinder Singh Sandhu) is the coach, so I just said he is looking okay. When I used to see him and see my photographs from when I was young, his body language (was exactly) what was required.
It’s a huge compliment for Ranveer Singh...
Kabir: I think the biggest compliment was when Kirti sir (Azad) called me and said that in the trailer where there is a profile shot of his, where he says, what else are we here for (but winning), he said, ‘For a moment I thought, did you get archival footage? I could not see Ranveer, I only saw Kapil Dev’. For a member of Team 83 to say that, I think that’s the greatest compliment.
Kapil sir, did you dip into nostalgia and find yourself calling your teammates in the middle of the night?
Kapil: I have been saying for the last 15-20 years that I am not the captain, I am just a part of the team. We have a group where we keep on chatting.
Kabir: They have a WhatsApp group called The Champions!
Kapil: And the 83 team is coming on December 22 to Bombay. Meeting them and spending time together — that will be a wonderful thing. Meeting your team after years, there are so many stories to share, most that can’t be shared elsewhere! (Laughs)
Kapil sir, luck, hard work and determination, what ratio would you give to your life?
Kapil: I think everything. I think if you want to achieve what we achieved in 83, you can’t say it’s only dedication or discipline. Yes, at the top of everything is the passion you have that brings everything together. Then slowly comes talent, thought process....
What was your relationship like with Bollywood and how has it evolved after the film?
Kapil: I am still far away... but I know everybody. When we meet, we spend time like we have been buddies for the last 100 years! Whichever actor I have met, it’s just taken two minutes to be a part of the group.
What does the win mean after all these years?
Kapil: Thousand times bigger than what we did in 83. When you are 24, you have won it and you feel it is a part and parcel of life... but when you see after 40 years and people react and talk, we feel it is a thousand times bigger than what we did in 83.
And, how do you think that changed the way people look at India?
Kapil: ...a lot of people come out and they say we gave them belief. When someone says that, you feel proud and happy... as a team.
Kabir: In the research that is something that came from everybody, especially for the diaspora I think. There are so many stories. I remember a senior barrister in London telling me that he was from an affluent family and went to a privileged school, but he was just one of the boys. So, when he went back after that win, the boys went to him with stars in their eyes, asking: ‘Aren’t you an Indian?’ because suddenly it was cool to be an Indian.
Fave sports films
Chariots of Fire
Kabir: Chariots of Fire is one of my favourites. Then Invictus. I love anything with a backdrop of politics in it also and it resonates with me in the context of 83 because it is about how the South African rugby team is viewed as a racist team, suddenly becoming a team that embraces everybody.
Bhaag Milkha Bhaag
Kapil: From what I have seen, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag. What a fabulous job, unbelievable. I told Milkha uncle (Singh; on whom the film was based) when he was alive that he (Farhan Akhtar) is looking far better than you when you were his age. So much effort!
The many moods of Kapil
One for the t2 camera
Sending everyone ROFL as he recounted how he wanted to run to his teammates post-win.
That epic dialogue! “Yash mere un wali talwar de de!” referring to the “mongoose bat” with which he blasted 175 not out at Tunbridge Wells against Zimbabwe in the 1983 World Cup.
Kapil: I was like a dead fish. I don’t remember anything! I remember this gora was saying something in English and I wanted to take the trophy and run away! (Laughs) I wanted to go back to my team! Trophy do mereko, team ke pass jana hai (gritted his teeth as everyone went ROFL)! When you win, you want to be with your family and the team is your family.
Kabir: An iconic moment which we have shot exactly at that spot, standing on that balcony, Clive Lloyd sitting 10ft away from us. I asked him if he wanted to come closer and he told me: ‘You want me to see that Cup being given away for the second time?’ (Laughs) Another great story was that, we had created the replica of the trophy and just before we were supposed to shoot, two ladies came in with a trolley and a velvet cloth covering it. They removed the cloth and it was the original Cup and they said they wanted us to shoot with that... I got gooseflesh. I picked it up and it was so much heavier than our replica and I gave it to Ranveer... ‘action’ and we do that and the moment I said ‘cut’, every single boy of the team just broke down. It was also a culmination for us... it was emotionally so overwhelming. It’s a journey I would cherish for the rest of my life.
Kabir and Kapil play the look-back game with t2
Kabir: I was just trying to figure out how to get my head in... this was when Sunil Gavaskar had visited the sets. This is a film that has been blessed by the gods of cricket. When you are shooting and you have the likes of Sunil Gavaskar, Gundappa Viswanath, Clive Lloyd, Gordon Greenidge and of course Kapil sir just sauntering around on your sets....
Kapil: This was when Balwinder Singh Sandhu took the first wicket... Kabir: Gordon Greenidge’s wicket
Kabir: This is the greatest privilege that a film-maker can have where you get the originals to train your actors. I can’t ask for more. Saqib Saleem plays Mohinder Amarnath and ‘the’ Mohinder Amarnath is teaching him and this was in a beautiful stadium in Dharamshala.