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No differences with Tendulkar, says director of Sachin: A Billion Dreams

English filmmaker James Erskine says he wanted to make a film for the Indian masses, and Tendulkar never laid down any no-go areas.

Mayur Lookhar

Mahatma Gandhi and Sachin Tendulkar. Apart from being two of India's most celebrated personalities, both have something else in common. It took an Englishman to tell their stories on celluloid.

The late Sir Richard Attenborough produced an Academy award-winner in Gandhi (1982). James Erskine is not familiar with Indian audiences, but the filmmaker was handpicked to helm Sachin: A Billion Dreams, the tale of India’s biggest sporting icon. The Master Blaster (as Tendulkar is fondly known) holds the record for scoring 100 centuries and over 34,000 runs in international cricket.

Sachin: A Billion Dreams hit the theatres yesterday (26 May), receiving mostly positive reviews. Erskine spoke to Cinestaan.com and shared his thoughts on the film. He underlined that he has made a populist film, one that connects with the Indian audience, and played down the few criticisms against it. He also said he might root for India if they play England in the final of the forthcoming Champions Trophy in England. Excerpts from the telephonic interview: 

Before the film, one wondered how a foreigner could direct a film on Sachin Tendulkar. But after watching it I'm tempted to ask, are you truly an Englishman or is there an Indian in you?

(Laughs.) I guess I have been here long enough to be called an Indian and I do like spicy food.

For an Englishman, what does it mean to direct a film on Sachin Tendulkar? Prior to this film, how religiously did you follow Tendulkar and Indian cricket?

Before this film, I didn’t really follow Indian cricket. I had seen Sachin play in England when he was younger. I didn’t really follow cricket a lot until I was around 30. I haven’t followed it so much in the last decade.

How did this project come your way?

It was pretty simple. I got a phone call [to ask] whether I was interested in coming here and meeting Ravi Bhagchandka, the producer, and Sachin Tendulkar. Ravi had seen some of my work. He wanted an outside perspective as well as an Indian perspective and to try and blend the two. I had actually previously researched a project about the 1983 Indian World Cup team. I had come to India but could never put that project together. 

This project has taken a while. What caused the delay? 

There was no delay. 

If I’m correct, we had seen the first teaser a couple of years ago?

Actually, the first teaser was aired in April last year. We wanted to go forensically through Sachin’s life. We spent a lot of time looking for original footage. These films take a long time to craft. We have to scale down a person’s whole life to just two and a half hours. All that takes time. 

Tendulkar is known to be a shy and private person. I was pleasantly surprised with the way he has opened up about his career, especially his personal life. How tough was it to get this human side of him out?

Actually, he is pretty talkative in the beginning. Initially, he spoke about his career very well. [But] it took me over a year to coax them into the idea that they might let me look into their home movies. That would be critical insight. I wanted the film to be very much in the heart rather than the head. Having seen his life, I thought that an emotional experience will be more powerful. I didn’t want it to feel like a television documentary.

Was the family willing to share personal footage? 

No, they were very reluctant. It took time to persuade them. As we went along there was trust in the relationship and they were willing to share. The family is very private. I respect them for that. The personal footage just doesn’t involve Sachin and so everyone had to be okay before they shared it. To me the film is really a family story. The footage on his father has never been seen before. It required a great amount of convincing for the family to share that. 

I got to see the Hindi version. Is there any difference between the English and Hindi or Marathi versions?

Sachin obviously speaks in all three of them. There is a difference in delivery, but the substance is the same. The initial conversations were in English and then we developed the Hindi and Marathi versions.

Is there anything in the English version that we don’t have in the Hindi and Marathi versions?

The structure is exactly the same, the journey remains the same. It is really important to make a version that everybody in the country can understand. We tried making a documentary for the masses. We tried making a new type of film, to make it work commercially, reach out to people. That is why we had the Marathi version. That wasn’t part of the original plan.

You have made documentaries before, but what were the challenges you faced while making Sachin: A Billion Dreams? There is a perception that Indian biopics tend to be populist. As a film-maker, do you approve of making a populist film?

I think it is an interesting question. It depends upon the person you are making a film about. The challenge of making a film about Sachin Tendulkar is ah… when I came in as an international director, working on an international film, the process that I learned is that it needed to be my sensibility, but the core audience here was an Indian audience. To be put into theatres, the film needed to be told more emotionally, using a certain story trope.

Producer Ravi Bhagchandka and director James Erskine

I don’t how to disagree with the populist thing. One can kind of, especially when you are stepping across form like this, one can look at it and be a little confused about what it is. What it should be is an entertainer. My realization in the later months was that there was a responsibility to each and every member of the audience to connect the film to their personal memories of Sachin. Moments which I as a Western filmmaker would place less importance on but which they might have a bigger connect with. It was a challenge how to blend that. With an Indian producer involved, we were always trying to figure out what would work for the Indian audience. 

Were there any creative differences with the producers or Sachin Tendulkar? 

There are always creative differences in every film. I have creative differences with myself. There is conflict and discussion about how to approach things and how not to approach things [between the producers and me]. That is part of the joy of making such a film.

There were no differences with Sachin. There was never any ‘you can’t do this or that’ moment with him. It was always a dialogue. Obviously, it is his life and so he has an opinion. He knew what he was doing, his wife knew what he was doing, There is a different responsibility when that person is alive. I’ve had experience with people where I have been told that you can’t go in that area, can’t mention that it ever happened. That wasn’t the case in this film at all.

While Tendulkar has opened up on his career and personal life, there is a feeling that he didn’t quite open up on the match-fixing saga. As a filmmaker, was there a temptation to get him to push the envelope?

Match fixing has its own films to be made. It involves lots of personalities that aren’t established into this story. I can understand that as a journalist you want that angle. However, I don’t think that is appropriate to the film. The film is about Tendulkar’s experience. It’s about trying to get close to being in his shoes. Match fixing was a tragedy in his life, but it is a totally different film to actually explore match fixing in all its complexity.

Also, how prudent was it to merely blame Greg Chappell for the 2007 World Cup disaster? Does the Englishman in you love bashing an Aussie?

(Laughs.) It’s not about bashing an Aussie. You are living in Sachin’s shoes, how he felt. I’m not trying to make a third person’s objective. There is a balance that you strike. If you want to create a journalistic, investigative film, then it is a different film. There are 100 films that you can make on just one aspect of his life, but we were trying to fit in a huge amount of his life into a small amount of time.

Similarly, we didn’t get to see Tendulkar talk about the 2004 Multan Test controversy where he was upset with captain Rahul Dravid for declaring the innings when he was batting on 194. Was there a thought to include that in the film?

I only had two hours. My film was about a young boy chasing his dream and his struggle. To me that is just a minor story, just one small disappointment. With every three minutes, we had to take something out. That is the constant frustration of making a documentary film. People have different expectations. Maybe one day we can make a documentary about the 10 controversies in Sachin’s life. 

But why a byte from former US president Barack Obama? How could it enhance the film?

The story for me is about how the backdrop of India changed at the beginning of Sachin’s career. 

Yes, Tendulkar’s rise coincided with the economic liberalization in 1991, but I was a little amused to see Obama out of nowhere. 

It is clear that the visual palette of the movie changed from what India was pre-economic liberalization to now being an economic superpower. It just happened to be Barack Obama saying that. It could have been anyone. Someone like me coming from outside wouldn’t know the story that India has now changed.

The film is written by Sivakumar Anant and you. Can you talk about this partnership?

I sat down and wrote the original 40-page treatment and then Siva was brought in to bring an Indian perspective into the writing, to help in dramatized sequences. He had followed Sachin’s career closely. It was a very positive collaboration. There would be more things missing without him. 

Indians will no doubt love the film. What expectations do you have from the overseas markets, especially America and Britain? 

I think they are two different markets. Internationally, there is the Indian diaspora. You have to remember that from an American point of view, cricket is not such a huge sport. Ideally, we wouldn’t take such a film to these markets, but we have the advantage of the Indian diaspora. The film works for an international audience. We have developed a shorter cut for the international versions. In the United Kingdom, you seldom get to see any film longer than 1 hour 45 minutes.

But apart from the diaspora, is there any buzz around the film in the British media or the cricket fraternity?

It’s difficult to say. The first screening in England took place a day before you saw it. I believe there were a good lot of journalists who saw it. Honestly, you expect the film to play out differently. It’s hard to get that buzz around a specific film. You don’t get the buzz there like you do here. We don’t have the trailer/music launches. This is a whole new thing for me, too. I think the film will do well in the UK.

Keeping aside the fans and the business aspect, what does James Erskine take away from this film? 

I take away an incredible experience of delving into a different world. Making the film on this scale for an Indian audience is gratifying. What I hope to take away is the appreciation of the audience. I hope I have given them something they can connect with.

And what about Mr Tendulkar? Have you become friends for life?

We get along pretty well. It’s a long life. We are going to be in touch with each other. 

Finally, the Champions Trophy is round the corner. If India were to meet England in the final, whom would you be rooting for?

That’s a tough question. I would probably root for India. I have had the pleasure of meeting admirable people like Virat Kohli, Yuvraj Singh. They are good guys. I don’t know the England team well. Anything that puts a smile on Mr Tendulkar’s face.