A film about the scandal-plagued life of a former Indian cricket captain deserves a grand scale, but Azhar feels like a made-for-TV movie.
I can’t testify to the accuracy of Azhar‘s story, as I know nothing about Mohammad Azharuddin. I never saw him play a minute of cricket, which puts me in the same boat as almost every Indian under the age of twenty.
That said, Azhar requires no foreknowledge, since all the dialogue is on the nose. Here’s how the cricket chairman drops the bombshell on Azhar (Emraan Hashmi) the night before the captain’s hundredth appearance for the national team: “Azhar, I have some bad news for you. You have been accused of match fixing.”
In case the dialogue isn’t direct enough, the actors go out of their way to make things extra clear. When Azhar decides to fight the cricket association’s lifetime ban in court, the prosecutor, Meera (Lara Dutta), tries to question M.K. Sharma (Rajesh Sharma), the bookie accused of bribery. She tells Sharma that she wants dirt on Azhar, causing Sharma to make an exaggerated gulping noise, leap out of his chair, and whip his head over each shoulder to see if anyone is behind him.
During the course of the eight-year-long court case, we get flashbacks to Azhar’s earlier life, including his relationship with his grandfather, his marriage to Naureen (Prachi Desai), and his affair with Sangeeta (Nargis Fakhri). The romantic plotlines make Azhar seem like a jerk, in which case he’d better be a helluva cricket player.
This brings me to the movie’s single biggest failing: it makes cricket look totally boring. According to Azhar, cricket is just a sequence of slow-rolling ground balls, with a few balls occasionally bopped into the stands. There’s no tension or excitement whatsoever.
Director Tony D’Souza uses so many tight shots during the cricket scenes that it’s impossible to tell what a match actually looks like. The entire frame is filled by a ball skittering past an outstretched hand or a ball plucked out of mid-air by another hand. Did the fielder have to run to catch it? How high did he jump? Where were the other fielders in relation to the play? D’Souza’s direction offers no clues.
The director applies this same framing to Azhar, so we never get a sense of how good a player he is. Hashmi spends most of his time on the field standing with his hands on his hips. Never has an actor playing a star athlete seemed so non-athletic.
Another problem with the main character is that he looks exactly the same throughout, whether Azhar is supposed to be twenty or almost fifty. It’s impossible to tell by looking at Hashmi when any given scene is taking place.
This is not one of Hashmi’s best performances, but it seems as though he’s doing what’s asked of him. D’Souza’s style doesn’t allow for subtlety. Periodic reverb on the dialogue recording further distracts from the film’s performances.
Neither Desai nor Fakhri have much to do, though Desai proves herself the better of the two at crying. Kunaal Roy Kapur is proficient in the thankless role of Azhar’s lawyer. Dutta’s no-nonsense performance is the best in the film.
There are a lot of people in the world who never witnessed Mohammad Azharuddin at his peak. We don’t know him. Azhar doesn’t give us a compelling reason to care.