This is yet another brilliant offering from Nagesh Kukunoor. Like a good chef, he takes a simple recipe and executes it perfectly with good ingredients to produce a great result. The actors and technical departments are top-quality, the story is original and refreshingly simple, and the direction is perfect.
Iqbal is the story of a deaf-mute village boy, born at the moment of India’s 1983 Cricket World Cup triumph (or perhaps when Kapil Dev won the semi-final match against Zimbabwe almost single-handedly). Iqbal has an innate but unschooled talent for cricket. The story is about his struggles to learn the game overcoming his own physical limitations, his father’s restrictions, and the political intricacies of cricket academies; and whether he can triumph over the many obstacles that come in his way.
The film excels in its immersive realization of the its environment. The setting of the film is that of a village somewhere in India, where Iqbal spends his days tending his father’s buffaloes. The story-telling in this movie and its pacing are in harmony with the simplicity of the environment. It is a very textural movie. You can almost feel the grass under your feet when Iqbal gets ready to bowl. The dull thud you hear when Iqbal drives his makeshift tree-branch stumps into the ground almost convinces you you can smell the sap. You can almost smell the haystack on which Iqbal’s mentor Mohit (played by Naseeruddin Shah) wakes up after a night of drunkenness. When Iqbal first walked into Mohit’s shadowy ancestral British-era haveli, I could almost feel the dank coolness inside. I’ve never seen a small-town cricket training academy or stadium, but after watching this movie, I imagine I have a feel for what they must be like.
This is one of those rare films where many different actors get a lot of screen time. Shreyas Talpade as the title character Iqbal dominates the screen for most of the time, of course, but the other actors’ characters are all very well-developed as well. Shweta Prasad excels in the role of Khadija (Iqbal’s sister). Naseeruddin is superb as Mohit; you can almost feel his drunken character’s hangover each morning. Girish Karnad gives a balanced performance as the political Guruji, capturing the character’s ambiguous morality. Prateeksha Lonkar and Yateen Karyekar are perfect as Iqbal’s parents. But the star is, of course, Shreyas Talpade. Talpade seems to work with Kukunoor a lot, and it seems like one of those win-win professional relationships. This movie really showcases how fine an actor Talpade really is. It’s hard to describe it all, but there’s no single place in this movie where what he does looks the least bit unusual. His look of mild incomprehension at conversations he can’t hear, his moments of elation, perplexity, gloom and his usual neutral good cheer, Talpade does them all, neither underdoing nor overdoing them.
And now for my pet peeve with Indian sports movies: again, this movie fails to showcase the sport it is based on. This movie may have captured the spirit of the cricket institutions themselves. But I would have loved to see some insane inswingers or yorkers. I wanted to see Iqbal scalp Kamal’s (Adarsh Balakrishna) wicket with a ball so good that I’d burst out in spontaneous applause. These could have been bowled by a mainstream bowler and sliced in with Talpade’s action. To Talpade’s credit, he has a pretty reasonable bowling action. But the ball trajectories are played down a bit and they are nothing to write home about. In this context, I am reminded of the excellent football movie Goal starring Pele and Sly Stallone. I’d like to see a movie with that kind of reverence for the technical game itself.
This is not the kind of film that induces extreme emotional responses. It is low-key, not designed for one-a-minute thrills, maudlin emotional blows or cringe-inducing evil. Even the worst character in the movie (Guruji) is simply political, not evil or malevolent or even particularly antagonistic towards Iqbal. This movie treats its subject matter with respect. But that doesn’t mean it’s dry or fails to connect with the viewer. It’s highly enjoyable, realistic cinema.