I have said this before, but I have a soft spot for sports movies. Even if the drama is a little manufactured, the conclusion foreordained, a well-made sports movie can still generate the right frisson, the little thrill of shared victory that sports allows the folks in the stands to share with the athletes on the field. And so, I had high expectations for Nagesh Kukunoor's Iqbal, a sports movie with the additional benefits of a village setting and appealing, talented cast. With that hat trick going for it, I thought Iqbal would surely be an instant favorite. For reasons I still can't pin down even as I write, though, this movie misses the mark.
Iqbal (Shreyas Talpade) is a deaf-mute young man, a farmer's son with big dreams. He inherited a passion for cricket from his mother (Prateeksha Lonkar), and spends long afternoons in the countryside setting up wickets and bowling them down with impressive precision. With the help of his hearing little sister Khadija (Shweta Prasad), Iqbal earns a tryout at a nearby swanky cricket academy led by a famous teacher known just as Guruji (Girish Karnad). He is soon ejected from the academy to appease a jealous and egotistical boy whose rich father's wallet holds more influence with the academy than Iqbal's talent - the naive Iqbal first unpleasant lesson about what really drives the machinery of competitive-class cricket, but not his last. Almost at the end of hope, Iqbal discovers that the village drunk, Mohit (Naseeruddin Shah), was a star bowler in his youth, and he prevails on the reluctant man to coach him. Mohit's training - and his personal influence - earn Iqbal an opportunity with the Andhra Pradesh state team. But Iqbal has more than deafness and lack of formal training to overcome. His father (Yatin Karyekar) is dead set against cricket, and wants Iqbal working the farm by his side. And Guruji, too, has machinations of his own in the works.
I am puzzled as to why this movie does not fire on all cylinders for me. It is not the performances, which are all fine and fairly natural. As the mute Iqbal, Shreyas Talpade is as sweet and likable as he ever is. Iqbal has no dialogue, and so Talpade must rely on other forms of expression to convey his character's central dilemma, the conflict between his dreamy nature on the one hand, and his love for his father and sense of responsibility to his family on the other. Talpade is more than up to this challenge. Naseeruddin Shah, in contrast, is not challenged at all as the wisecracking drunken has-been Mohit, who dries up in a hurry when Iqbal needs him to. But even if it is not his most nuanced performance ever, Shah is appealing enough. The best performances are from Prateeksha Lonkar and Yatin Karyekar as Iqbal's parents; Karyekar is especially compelling, offering a combination of tenderness and sternness that is believable and sympathetic.
Iqbal also offers a pleasing window onto village life, the kind that I usually enjoy. Iqbal's father is a hardworking farmer, always at risk of losing his property. But he wants better for his children, and the way he runs his family suggests a dream of upward mobility that is very engaging. Iqbal's sister Khadija is studious and book-hungry, and she seems thoroughly encouraged in these pursuits. As for Iqbal, when he is not practicing his bowling technique, he tends the family's buffaloes, whom he has named for national-team bowlers (including his favorite, Kapil Dev, who makes a cameo appearance late in the movie). The scenes in which Iqbal leads the buffaloes to pasture and sets up his practice pitch provide Kukunoor many opportunities for picturesque landscape shots full of billowing meadows and rakish palm trees.
Despite its strengths, though, Iqbal remains a fairly by-the-book sports movie - dream, obstacle, glimmer of hope, training montage, setback, more training montage, more hope, more setback, improbable last-minute turnaround victory. All of this is fine if it is well-executed, but the sports aspect of Iqbal is, unfortunately, one of its weaker aspects. The movie does not provide a great sense of cricket as a team sport, partly due to Iqbal's isolated, outsider status, but also because in the story's arc, the rest of his team simply doesn't matter. The result is that the sports arc of Iqbal packs less punch than that of Dil bole hadippa, Chak de India, or Lagaan - each of those, in its own way, offers a larger context for the big game than a single character's apotheosis.
And then there is the question of why Iqbal is deaf and mute. In fretting to understand what this element adds to the movie, I have come up with several theories, some narrative and others symbolic. Perhaps it is meant to augment Iqbal's isolation, providing a coccoon for his focused pursuit of his dream. Or, maybe it's presented as a quotidian aspect of village life - such disabilities are perhaps more common in communities where quality medical care for childhood diseases is wanting. In this reading, Iqbal's deafness is just another aspect of who he is, shown in the same way is shown to be Muslim - not to make a point, just to add color to the movie's tapestry. Perhaps his deafness is a device to increase the odds against him - but if so, the movie drops this thread very abrubtly when Iqbal joins the Andhra team, as there is not even lip service paid to any communication problems with his coach or teammates there. None of these readings is very satisfying - they read like post-hoc attempts to justify a story element that ultimately feels tacked-on, a cheap ploy for sympathy that is brushed aside when it is no longer expedient.
This spotty handling of Iqbal's deafness perhaps gets to the heart of why Iqbal is merely a nice movie and not a superb one. The movie suffers from a bit of tone confusion - the filmi facets of Iqbal's deafness clash against the delicate, arty portrayal of his family life, and the gears don't quite mesh. It's a sweet movie, a nice try, and has a lot that makes it worth watching. But I can't help feeling that it's just not as good as it could have been. It has a good solid innings, but it doesn't quite hit a century.