800 gets so lost in celebrating its grand subject that it forgets something pretty elementary: Cricket is a team sport!, notes Sreehari Nair.
In 800, Director M S Sripathy creates a world of brands such as Reebuk, OBM, Singnr and Pan Habaar, and a world of people just as diminished.
Arjuna Ranatunga is turned into a gum-chewing mass hero and Aravinda de Silva is so effectless that he is a masterpiece of taxidermy.
The Aussies in 800 are no better than the Aussies we had met in Awwal Number (Happy 100, Devsaab!), and Shane Warne is all uppity and no guile.
Sure, we all want them Kangaroos to be shrunk and shuttered (it's the implicit fantasy of every 90s kid) but Sripathy's crime is rather peculiar.
If Kabir Khan's '83 was a cricket movie for people who hate cricket, this one goes a step further.
800 is a biographical drama about the life and career of Muttiah Muralitharan, and it gets so lost in celebrating its grand subject that it forgets something pretty elementary: Cricket is a team sport!
So Sri Lanka's 1996 World Cup win is reduced to a single event: Murali getting a bear-hug from his captain.
In a 1998 game against England that Mahela Jayawardene had almost single-handedly helped win, Murali hitting the winning run becomes the highlight.
When he is not hogging attention on the field, the Muralitharan of this movie keeps himself busy with geopolitical matters -- such as lighting a candle in Velupillai Prabhakaran's gloomy heart.
The frame story is equally ridiculous.
We open in Galle. The year is 2010. Murali has three days to reach the coveted number of 800 Test wickets.
In a newspaper office nearby, an unimaginative upstart volleys obvious questions about the great spinner. The questions are directed at a senior journalist played by Nassar, who stares at the upstart with a stoic face, before rattling off Wikipedia facts as if they were classified information.
A child of Tamil migrants who were brought into Sri Lanka by the British, exposed to Sinhalese violence at age six and Sinhalese derision thereafter (the whole movie is Tamil Nadu's endorsement of Murali as their 'very own son', pitted against the prejudice of the average Sinhalese chap), the little crank who takes to nothing except a cricket ball.
There are scenes of violence staged at the level of Tamil Cinema's understanding of State-sponsored violence, what with glares, chants, and swoons aplenty. Thankfully, they stop, and our subject grows up.
We see Murali at cricket academies, at team meetings, at net practice, and we realise that everybody is acting on directorial cues.
The worst offenders are Murali's seniors, who seem recruited from the same clique of insurance agents. They taunt him, he bamboozles them, a star is born, passionate but gauche.
The Sinhalese crowd dislikes him because he is Tamil, natives of Colombo dislike him because he is a Kandy boy, and shoed people dislike him because he wears sandals to a nightclub.
He has a father, a mother, a grandam, and they are such paragons of virtue and so bloody robust that I wished they would dry out a bit.
Madhur Mittal plays Murali as someone who's always a little late to arrive at the moment, and that is supposed to be a shorthand for the character's innocence.
There are two centerpieces, the chucking controversy and the Tamilian roots, two 'stains' that follow him everywhere.
This, then, is the story of a man whose only wish is to be allowed to bowl in peace, trapped in a world that just wouldn't allow him to bowl in peace.
And yet, when Madhur Mittal tries to recreate Murali's bowling action, the camera strains to conceal the gaps in his effort (it wouldn't be an exaggeration to state that Mittal's bowling action gives more credence to Darrell Hair's claims than it does to Muralitharan's preternatural genius).
Also, here's a sad truth for you to consider.
Despite its eagerness to build up its subject as a lone ranger, the spirit of Muttiah Muralitharan never quite turns up in the picture.
Muralitharan was a partly comic, partly aquiline presence on the cricket field.
A wizard in the true sense of the word, there was even a slight spookiness that went with him.
Think about those eyes putting the revolutions on the ball with as much occult force as the hand.
The spirit of Muralitharan was evident in the way he came out to bat with an elfish smile, backed away from the stumps, and tried to sock McGrath over the cover.
None of that comes through in this movie because there’s something essentially Sri Lankan about Murali that M S Sripathy, deep in the quagmire of his political project, fails to touch upon.
In his enthusiasm for branding Muralitharan as 'Tamil Nadu's very own son born on the wrong side of the Palk Strait', Sripathy makes his subject a sui generis with absolutely no connection to the history of his country or to Sri Lankan cricket -- so you don't hear a word about his idols, there's nothing about how the Sri Lankan government had supported him, no suggestion of any close friendships he had had with any of his team-mates.
To say that 800 is 'every biopic ever made' would be to criticise it with kid gloves. This is a movie that takes a national icon and renders him rootless twice over.