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Murali’s no chucker, but one can chuck this film – Beyond Bollywood

The biopic of legendary Sri Lankan cricketer Muthiah Muralidaran is unlikely to please either the cricket fans or film enthusiasts. Its fate was perhaps sealed the day when Vijay Sethupathi was forced to leave the film.

Rating: ⭐️✨️ (1.5 / 5)

Madhur Mittal as Muthiah Muralidaran in 800 (2023)

By Mayur Lookhar

When he regularly bamboozled opposition with his spin, commentators would say, if the rules permitted, then Muttiah Muralitharan was capable of bowling from two ends. Thank God, the rule only allows a bowler to bowl one over (6 balls) at a time, or else Murali would haved ended with over 4,000 international wickets. 

800 Test wickets, 534 in ODIs, add a puny 13 wickets in T20Is, which was in its infancy stage, you have freak off-spinner in Muttiah Muralitharan. 

Muthiah Muralidaran

Over 15 years, he carried this spelling. His biopic 800 carries the name as Muthiah Muralidaran. It’s the correct spelling and in line with the correct pronunciation in Tamil.  Coming back to his astounding record statistics, it is impossible for a human to achieve such feats without having the hunger for wickets. This hunger was first evident when a puny little boy, desperate to play cricket, told the big bullies that he is willing to bowl for the both the teams. 

The bully agrees. The little boy is overwhelmed that after days of simply fielding, he will get his chance to bow to the big boys.  Sadly, tragedy strikes as a bomb explodes in the vicinity. Yet little Murali wants to bowl. His colleagues sense the danger and he is quickly taken away from the scene.

From the time he first picked up the cricket ball to playing his first game for Sri Lanka, the road has been anything but smooth. Twelve years after the great player retired, comes his biopic which is an Indian production.

The long Civil conflict between Sril Lanka’s majority Sinhalese and ethnic Tamil minority ended with a bloody war in 2009. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam [LTTE] was defeated. It’s founder Prabhakaran was killed and so, too, his young son. Then came the Human Rights violation.  For ages, the Sri Lankan civil conflict was closely monitored in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu.  Even today, Sri Lanka, and its then president Mahinda Rajapaksa, are unlikely to have many empathizers in Tamil Nadu.  Murali, a humble Tamil man from Kandy was often sandwiched between the conflict. If Muralitharan played for India, there is every likelihood that this biopic would have chosen to ignore the social, political crisis.  Indian biopics are more like hagiographies.

“Whatever is there in the film, is the truth. There’s nothing to hide,” Muralidaran proclaimed at the 800 trailer launch few weeks ago.  After all, the film needs to live up to its promise of being an ‘untold story’.

The major untold here is how a Tamil boy didn’t let the Civil conflict come in the way of his dream. The big surprise is the unplanned meet with LTTE chief Prabhakaran, where Murali made it clear that he supports non-violence and peace. In any civilian conflict, the minority often has to prove its loyalty.  Murali faced bias at the grassroot level, with some cricketers even taking veiled digs when he first travelled with the Sri Lankan team on the 1991 England tour.  Honestly, if it wasn’t for Sri Lanka’s greatest captain Arjun Ranatunga, the man wouldn’t have made it to the international team.

Murali faced both domestic and international issues too, whereby the legality of his bowling action was questioned. He was twice called for chucking – both times in Australia.  He took wickets by the dozens, but certain purists were never convinced – chiefly Indian great Bishan Singh Bedi.

With a title like 800, one would expect the film to cover the on-field exploits, but director M.S. Sripathy, and perhaps Muralidaran too, chose to focus more on the off-field controversies. A Muralidaran biopic would be unimaginable without the no-ball controversy, but it didn’t have to be the focal point. Having being eventually cleared by International Cricket Council, Muralidaran didn’t need any justification for his action.  

The representation of the Civil conflict and Murali’s views are brave, but will people back home in Sri Lanka perceive this film as any Tamil appeasement?  The film shows Murali having a balanced view on the conflict. Constantly sandwiched between it, Murali had the best answer, “My identity ends at simply being a cricketer”. In cricketing parlance, this is akin to playing with a dead bat.

Vijay Sethupathi was the first choice to play Muralidaran

An Indian production on a Sri Lankan great, it is natural for the producers to tap into the bigger market.  800 is no Tamil appeasement, but is Tamil Nadu prepared to accept this film? Murali played for Chennai Super Kings in the initial years of his Indian Premier League career. They loved him, but the same Chennai wouldn’t be comfortable to see Sri Lanka play an international match in Tamil Nadu. The early view around 800 wasn’t encouraging. Super star Vijay Sethupathi looked convincing as Murali as seen in the first poster. It didn’t take long for him to face backlash. Reportedly, the dissent spilled onto to the streets too with Sethupathi eventually backing out of the film. 

If this could happen to a Vijay Sethupathi, there was no way that any Tamilian would have braved to take up 800.  Though, the makers will never admit it, but M.S. Sripathy was left with no option but to rope in an outsider. In stepped Madhur Mittal, a non-Tamilian who slightly resembles Murali. Phew, we hope he wasn’t picked for sharing the common (MM) initials.  We were told that he can’t speak Tamil. So, we can safely presume that he might have dubbed for the Hindi version. How has Mittal fared as Murali?

To keep it short, this is a terrible casting. Apart from being unconvincing as an actor, he couldn’t even get remotely close to imitating Murali’s bowling action. He’s acting mirrors a flat type, devoid of any real emotion. A bowler gets 6 balls in an over but given his personality, and Indian cinema’s penchant for face value, Mittal is unlikely to get another leading role. He makes a meal of this big opportunity. Honestly, 800 was doomed the moment Sethupathi had to quit the film.

Save for the gentleman [King Ratnam] playing Arjuna Ranatunga, none of other actors are convincing in their cricketing avatars. Veteran actor Nassar is the lone saving grace here as the veteran owner/editor of a local [Sri Lankan] daily.  

Mahima Nambiar is listed in a dual role. We only recollect her sudden appearance as wife of Muralitharan.  Maybe, Murali wanted to keep his marriage life private.  However, a little bit of personal story could have been added into this arranged marriage. Madhimalar [Nambiar] is aTamilian too. As with cross border marriages, the wives are sandwiched in between.  “It doesn’t matter to me even if you support Australia,” Muralidaran tells his hurt wife.  That’s about the contribution that Nambiar has in this film.

Sports biopic can be an expensive affair as the archive footages don’t come cheap. 800 can’t be faulted for its poor production design, but Sripathy fails to bring even the historical 800th wicket finely on the pitch. Besides, Sri Lanka’s maiden ODI World Cup triumph is passed off in a jiffy. Murali’s epic 9/65 in the second innings of the 1998 Lord’s Test against England is covered, but why weren’t some of his exploits against India missing. Was there any need to show Murali seeking advice from Indian great fast bowler Kapil Dev? While Murali had a good record against India, it is evident that the makers didn’t want to upset Indian cricket fanatics.  

There is no such luxury for Pakistan and its fans, as the Indian film was bound to cover the barbaric 2009 terror attack on the Sri Lankan team bus outside the Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore. The coverage of the chucking controversy, and the alleged vindictive attitude of few in MCC [Marylebone Cricket Club] and in Cricket Australia, won’t please the Westerners. Sripathy pacifies the Aussie fans by a fine tribute to the late spin wizard Shane Warne.

The poor production values, below par creativity reduce 800 to another disappointing sports biographical film. Phew, if a quality film like 83 [2021] failed to appease Indian audiences. This poor biopic on a Sri Lankan legend is unlikely to have much takers. We whole heartedly believe that Murali’s no chucker, but you wouldn’t lose much if you chuck this film from your watchlist.

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