Even before Azhar begins, the makers' muddled intentions are on display in the form of an inordinately long disclaimer that goes to great lengths to clarify that the film is not meant to be a biopic, but is a fictionalized dramatic representation of Mohammad Azharuddin's life. What? We thought we were buying a tub of ice cream, and all we get is a cup of tasteless gelato? And that, dear audience, isn't even the worst of it.
Azhar traces the rise and fall of one of India's most celebrated cricketers. The film travels from his humble Hyderabadi neighbourhood where a doting Nanajaan teaches him to talk with his bat, to the Indian cricket pitch where a cricketing great is made. It documents his colourful personal life, as well as the match-fixing scandal that shadowed his legacy forever.
Emraan Hashmi, let's face it, isn't an inspired choice for the titular role. If nothing, the sheer physicality of the actor and his muse are at odds. However, credit to the actor for an earnest effort. He goes to great lengths to slip on "Ajju Mannerisms"; right from the distinctive walk to the neck tilt, the head nod, the quick, self-effacing salaam, and even the compulsive nail-biting on the field and the tongue sticking out from the corner of his mouth while swinging his bat.
But those are just mannerisms that hint at the complex character that hid behind them. If you're expecting to see Hashmi present a sensitive and nuanced interpretation of the inner workings of a famous public figure, you'll be disappointed. Hashmi fails to drop his characteristic stylized screen persona - he is very simply Emraan Hashmi playing Azharuddin.
And director Tony D'Souza fails to guide not just his lead actor, but the rest of the cast entrusted to him as well. Prachi Desai as the pretty, demure and clueless first wife Naureen smiles and blushes her way through the film. Lara Dutta's interpretation of the sharp, successful lawyer Meera is insufferably snooty, Kunal Roy Kapur overdoes the buffoonery as the underdog lawyer Reddy, and Nargis Fakhri as Sangeeta Bijlani is simply comatose.
It could be argued that the director and the ensemble struggled as a team because they had substandard material to work with - the writing on this film is probably its biggest flaw. The makers had a fantastic real life story to work with, and on top of that they threw the "fictionalized drama" caveat at us anyway. So, it's hard to find an excuse for their mediocre work on a number of fronts.
Barely skimming the surface of the intriguing characters that played an important role in this tale, the writing doesn't present a single, well-rounded multi-dimensional person. Caricature follows caricature - the misunderstood hero, the wronged wife, the starlet with a golden heart, the underdog etc. The result is that you will not feel an iota of emotional connection with the characters onscreen, and remain cold and indifferent to their fate.
On top of that, the creative license that the writer exercised in order to add some masala to the proceedings is terribly misdirected. The presentation of Azhar and Sangeeta's vacuous romance is more suitable for a B-grade Bhatt film, and the numerous smooches are a misplaced and unnecessary nod to Hashmi's "serial kisser" reputation. Then there are the courtroom scenes, and again, it's bewildering to see a previously tongue-tied and painfully shy Azhar suddenly develop an acerbic tongue, and throw one corny dialogue after another at Meera.
However, the biggest weakness of the writing is a total absence of courage. Again, just contemplate the material that this team was working with - they could have focused on the cricketer-bookie nexus, the involvement of the underworld, the modus operandi of match-fixers, the role that the other famous players of the time played in this very public scandal. But no, the tainted cricketer is redeemed rather unsatisfactorily, the bookie seems terrible inept, an underworld don just shows us the back of his head, and a whole line of cricketing greats are paraded on screen for a few minutes and dismissed summarily. Even the sanitized presentation of Azhar's adulterous affair is laughable.
The only area where the script does show some ambition is in its attempt to experiment with the narrative structure. The movie flits between past and present, the personal and the professional, and tries to harmonize these chapters into a cohesive story. All it succeeds in doing is creating a hodge-podge that takes away much-needed momentum from a film that isn't gripping to begin with anyway.
Yet, the most unforgivable error - for which we are going to blame the producers, directors, writers, actors, editors, and even the spot boys - is the bland presentation of some phenomenal Indian cricketing moments with Azhar front and centre. Didn't anybody on this film set look at those scenes and say, "Er, maybe you should check out the climax of Lagaan
Mohammad Azharuddin had some glorious moments on the pitch, and his fans, or any cricket fan for that matter, will expect, no demand, that the match scenes allow us to experience a rush of adrenaline, goose bumps and patriotism all in equal measure. And therein lies the tragedy of Azhar - it fails to give us even that thrill.
The tag line of Azhar is "Love him, hate him, judge him". Forget feeling any sympathy or revulsion for the man, you'll be lucky if you don't yawn at him.
This one is strictly for die-hard Azharuddin fans, or those looking for some '90s cricket nostalgia.