Saturday, February 25, 2012

Fire in Babylon Review

(This is something that I wrote in July-August 2011 but only had the opportunity to type up now) 

“Babylon is a state of mind”

Every team needs a few bowlers who can, not only catapult the ball from one end of the pitch to the other at bone-shattering speeds, but can also vary their lines and lengths as the occasion demands while doing so. The West Indies cricket team, the subject of this film, has never had a total absence of such bowlers but after their whitewash at the hands of Australia, they were in a precarious position in which some of their best fast bowlers had retired and their young pacers were still raw and undisciplined. It was the endeavour of Clive Lloyd to groom a motley group of such young pacers from across the Caribbean into great fast-bowlers and world beaters that is captured in the 2010 film ‘Fire in Babylon’

The reason why I call it a film rather than a documentary is because the director has chosen to create an arc of dispiriting defeats and inspiring fight-backs with the narrative being led by fearsome fast bowlers instead of an empirical documentation of the rise of the West Indies from ‘calypso cricketers’ or how such a factory line of world-class bowlers almost magically appeared. This has meant that certain liberties were taken in the making of the film, for instance there was no mention of the fact that the West Indies had won the first Cricket World Cup a full year before they were trounced in Australia 5-0. Instead, of the first few minutes of the film showing disconsolate images of West Indies cricketers moping in Australia, as if West Indies cricket had reached an all-time low, it may have been more effective to begin at an earlier decade where the team had a few stars and only occasional wins – the eras of Learie Constantine and George Headley.

However, fast bowlers who can draw blood and bruise opposition batsmen provide a far more potent image of resurgence, pride and to put it bluntly, black power.  It is the image and persona of the fast bowlers nurtured by Clive Lloyd that is the driving force of the film. During a time of civil rights and independence movements around the world and particularly within the Commonwealth, these bowlers who could physically and symbolically put the white opposition batsmen on the back foot began to be seen as more than sportspersons. They were presentations of the people on the closest thing to a level playing field (pun fully intended) and their struggles were seen as the people’s own struggles to gain respect. This was only reinforced by the disastrous statement by English captain Tony Greig in ___, when he said that he would make the West Indies team “grovel”.  The players were incensed and the fire and brimstone that they unleashed on the helmet-less English batsmen continues to be seen as one the most blood curdling episodes in cricket since Bodyline. Anyone who has seen old footage of Michael Holding tenderising Brian Close would testify to this. England was ‘blackwashed’ comprehensively and their captain who was born in Apartheid South Africa fell to his knees in front of the gallery of Caribbean supporters.

For the average Caribbean spectator in Britain it was a watershed moment. Amidst the racial tensions, income disparity and police brutality rife in 1970s Britain, it engendered a sense of pride among the immigrant community. This feeling of pride is evident in the interviews of the aging spectators of ‘West Indies’ glory days – among whom a member of Bob Marley’s ‘Wailers’ can be counted. What these players meant to their adoring fans is immortalised in song, some of which are nostalgically sung in the film by old men in aquamarine suits with cataracts in their eyes.

Despite what they say in the interviews in the film, it is questionable from the outset whether these players, some of them still very young at the time, fully appreciated how their on-field actions resonated off-field. This was even candidly admitted by Michael Holding during the red carpet ceremony before the launch of the film in London.

Even in such an all-conquering West Indies line-up it is this sense of purpose and identity that really separated the men from the boys, the Sir Vivian Richards from the Colin Crofts. ‘Viv’, as he is affectionately known, was fully aware of what he meant to the Caribbean and despite being offered a blank cheque, he refused to be wooed by Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket in apartheid South Africa. Croft gave in and in one of the more honest moments of the film he even admitted that he was lured by the unprecedented amount of money. Unsurprisingly his career and reputation died on the rocks. He was still fortunate as some of his teammates during the World Series are now drug addicts.

Viv, on the other hand, continued to play for the West Indies, brutalising attacks around the world and ultimately taking over the mantle of leadership from Clive Lloyd- all the while wearing the arm band of Zion. With his gum-chewing swagger and domineering presence, he bestrode the cricketing world stage as its equivalent of Malcolm X. The movie ends with a mention of their successful tour of Pakistan and a scrolling list of their awesome Test series record. In the words of Holding again, “No team, in any sport, was so dominant in their sport for 15 years.”

The title ‘Fire in Babylon’ suggests a depth that is not really present in the film. It plots a narrative of oppression and retribution which is sweeping in ambition but glosses over the context in which they rose to prominence and the roots of their sporting dominance. It has the requisite protest images, some general comments about being oppressed and a nod towards the West Indies’ first black captain Frank Worrell but it is insufficient in creating a backdrop upon which the meteoric rise to the peak with the help of fast bowlers can be seen. The fact that no one under 30 was interviewed in the making of the film speaks volumes too. It raises questions about the dis-connect that exists between generations of players and spectators.

While the interviews of old Caribbean spectators is both heart-warming and entertaining, rather than seeing this film as a commentary on the societal impact of cricket or its use as a tool in the anti-colonial struggle, it should be viewed for what it is: a glimpse of the ingredients that make an unparalleled sports team and an immensely satisfying montage of videos of bowlers sending batsmen off the field in stretchers! And even if it is too satisfy such a blood lust, I would recommend watching this film as you are not likely to see in a Bangladeshi cricket match any time soon. 

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