Azhar opens with a lengthy disclaimer: it’s not a biopic of disgraced cricketer Mohammed Azharuddin and is only a fictionalised dramatisation for the purposes of entertainment.
As disclaimers go, this one has to be one of the most inaccurate in recent memory – and one of the most imaginative things about the movie. There is no doubt about the identity of the character being portrayed by Emraan Hashmi: a gifted batsman with the magic wrists who has Mohammed and Azhar in his name, hails from Hyderabad, leads the Indian cricket team, leaves his wife Naureen for the actress Sangita Bijlani, and becomes an outcast after being banned by the Board of Control for Cricket in India and the International Cricket Council for throwing away matches.
Written by Rajat Aroraa and directed with consistent ineptitude by Tony D’Souza, Azhar pretends to be anything but a biopic. However a 131-minute film that traces the cricketer’s childhood, his early achievements, eventful tenure as the Indian cricket captain, the romantic dalliance that makes headlines, and the scandal that taints him for life cannot be called anything but that.
The refusal to face up to its true identity is actually the least of this movie’s problems. Azhar is a botched opportunity to present a nuanced portrait of one of Indian cricket’s most enigmatic figures. The movie is too busy dodging potential lawsuits, but they may pile up regardless, despite referring to several characters only by their first names (“Manoj”, “Kapil”, “Javed”).
This flimsy attempt to prevent lawyers from lining their accounts is unlikely to impress anyone. For instance, Ravish (Gautam Gulati), who it is safe to assume is Ravi Shastri¸ isn’t likely to be pleased at the suggestion that he was cavorting with another woman in during an England tour while his wife paced the hotel corridors.
The movie opens with Manoj, presumably Manoj Prabhakar, setting up the infamous sting operation in 2000 in which various of Azharuddin’s team-mates seemingly indict him for match-fixing. The cricketer is banned just one match short of 100 Tests. As the bombastic script later informs us, Azharuddin’s 100th test is in the courtroom, where his shambolic lawyer Reddy (Kunaal Roy Kapur) defends him from a prosecutor with a chic wig (Lara Dutta).
The heavily partisan account keeps cutting back to the past, including the early happy years with the red-cheeked Naureen (Prachi Desai), the fateful encounters with bookie MK Sharma (Rajesh Sharma) and the generous-lipped Sangita (Nargis Fakhri), and the humiliation heaped on a man who constantly asserts his innocence.
Although the movie’s sole purpose seems to be the rehabilitation of Azharuddin, neither Aroraa nor D’Souza builds a convincing case that he is a victim rather than an opportunist. Crucial opportunities for character development are missed, such as the Sangita Bijlani episode. The transformation of the famously tongue-tied cricketer and family man into the future husband of Salman Khan’s ex is surely rich fodder, but the filmmakers are too busy pinning a halo and wings on Azharuddin to notice the lapse.
The cricketing scenes are cursory, the production tacky and the abundance of bad hairdos is an eyesore, but Hashmi manages to hold the film together. He is usually dead-eyed in most of his movies and let his lips do the talking, but at least in Azhar, Hashmi is finally paying some attention. He doesn’t look like the cricketer one bit and doesn’t manage to replicate his hurried mumble, but for the first time in years is immensely watchable.
In Jannat (2008), Hashmi played a match fixer and bookie, a role that perfectly suited his louche charm. Azhar sees him at the other end of the transaction, and Hashmi works hard to ensure his own rehabilitation as an actor. The movie might not be able to scrub the taint off Azharuddin, but it does go a long way in proving that Hashmi still has a few googlies to deliver.