When Bollywood actor Emraan Hashmi played a con man responsible for cricket match-fixing in the 2008 crime romance Jannat – a movie that proved to be the turning-point in the actor's five-year-old career – he could have had no idea that one day he would play a cricket legend involved in a real-life match-fixing scandal.
Hashmi's Azhar, a biopic of internationally acclaimed cricketer and former Indian captain Mohammad Azharuddin, opens in theatres tomorrow.
Produced by Shobha Kapoor and Ekta Kapoor and directed by Tony D’Souza, the film covers, among other events, the match-fixing incident Azharuddin was accused of in 2000, and subsequently acquitted of in 2012.
The 37-year-old Hashmi talks to us about the trials and triumphs of playing the cricket great.
You've gone from playing a fictional character involved in match-fixing, to portraying a real-life cricketer accused of it. How big a part does cricket play in your life?
Like most Indians, if you put a bat and a ball in front of me, I can hold my own. But to play cricket with the technical finesse of Azharuddin? Of course I did not have that in me.
What was your reaction when you found out that you were going to play Azharuddin?
When Ekta [Kapoor] told me about the film, I was so excited. But that excitement quickly turned into nervousness. I felt very honoured to be given the chance, but to portray a personality whose life has been so eventful, emulating how he talks, how he walks ... and the biggest challenge: his cricket skills? His style is completely non-textbook. His strokes were almost suicidal. Only Azhar bhai could play like that. The film documents his journey in the cricket world right from the 1980s, when he first came to the team; his great run as a captain for 10 years; and finally, right at his peak, how the allegations of match-fixing came forth.
In 2000, when this allegation was made against Azharuddin, where did you stand? And how do you feel now that you have got to know him?
I believe that instead of playing judge, jury and executioner, we should let the law take its own course. When he won the court case, it was vindication enough for all the premature judgments being passed around. I spent a lot of time with him over the past one and a half years. He trained me for three months to get me to a place where I could convincingly portray him – not just as an individual but also as a sportsman. A lot of positive things can be said about him, but the biggest one is his honesty about himself. Sometimes you see yourself the way you want to see yourself, and not how you really are. But not Azharuddin.
What were some of your biggest challenges while shooting for this film?
It has been a tough journey. We shot in London, Derbyshire and in Hyderabad, which is Azhar’s hometown. The cricketing portions made me the most nervous obviously, because everyone has seen him play cricket and he has certain mannerisms and nuances about him when he plays. To embody those things was a huge challenge. Doing Azhar’s signature “flick shot” for instance, was very tough. There was a certain amount of flexibility and agility required, so I had to train for a long time to be able to do it. It took me four months to get it right.
How tough is it to portray a real-life character?
When you’re playing a fictional character, there are a thousand ways you can play it and all thousand can be right, but when you are portraying a real-life person on screen, it’s a different story. People know Azharuddin and love him, and they are going to gauge my performance here in a different way. If I did something wrong in this film, then that would have been a huge point of criticism. So I studied even the smallest details about him. Things like his walk, the way he eats, the way he speaks. I almost became his stalker in this process of trying to take close note of what he does and how he does it.
Would you classify Azhar as a cricket film?
There is huge element of the relationships there, too. There is the relationship he has with his first wife Naureen (played by Prachi Desai), which is very unique, and has been shot in old Hyderabad with a traditional orthodox Muslim feel. Then there is the relationship with his second wife, film actress Sangeeta [played by Nargis Fakhri], which was totally different and is shown with a totally different manner as well.
What will spell success for you when this film comes out?
For me, the battle will be won when Azhar bhai sees the film and says “You have done me proud”.
• Azhar is out in theatres tomorrow