Lucknow- Cricket euphoria has once again gripped the nation during the World Cup season. The craze for the game is more accentuated among teenagers and the youth. Over a period of time, the introduction of IPL has paved the way for more opportunities for players. Players from modest families have been catapulted to a life of stardom and affluence. However, the issue of caste in cricket has gained momentum in recent years. The domination of Marathi Brahmins (which is gradually waning) has always been a matter of discontent within the Bahujan Circles.
Palwankar Baloo is believed to be the first Dalit cricketer who played for the all-Indian team led by the Maharaja of Patiala during their tour of England in 1911. But it is said that even while playing cricket, the fetters of caste were attached to him, and he was served tea and snacks separately.
Other well-known Dalit cricketers include Vinod Kambli, whose dismissal from the Indian cricket team is still criticized as selective and casteist by some people. Many other cricketers from Dalit and backward communities have managed to find their place in the cricket team, but it is alleged that a higher bar is set to test their performance.
Very few mainstream films in the 1980s addressed the issue of caste; instead, the reality of caste often got overshadowed by the carpet of poverty. "All Rounder," released in 1984, happens to be a film that deals with the struggle of an aspiring cricketer and, at the same time, manages to use caste as a subtext of poverty.
"All Rounder" has been directed by Mohan Kumar, who had a predilection for the alphabet "A," like his close relative J. Omprakash. The film stars Kumar Gaurav, Rati Agnihotri, Vinod Mehra, and Shakti Kapoor in the lead roles.
The plot of the film may sound quite trite: Birju supports his mother and younger brother Ajay by singing to eke out a living. Even in 1984, when the film was released, the story of a poor family struggling to make ends meet was a cliché; the opening scene drops a reference to the departed father. We come to know that he was a Mali (Gardener).
Harbouring cricketing ambitions, Ajay works as a helper at the cricket ground where his father worked as a gardener. After practicing at the ground with his brother just to observe an arrogant Vikram Singh play, he reveals his desire to learn cricket by watching him play. However, Vikram sniggers at him, apparently believing in a hierarchical caste system, and advises the aspiring cricketer to confine himself to his "khandaani pesha," i.e., cutting grass, and that cricket is Vikram's "khandaani pesha." (Did the British tamper with the varna system to include their game in it?)
Ajay smarts under the patronizing tone of Vikram. Vikram also has two acolytes to repeat his words; apparently, they have been paid for it.
Undaunted by the affronting conduct of Vikram, Ajay returns to the ground the next day with his brother. Unfortunately, he is caught by the proponent of the modern varna system, who uses the term "Ghasiyara" for him and wonders how he mustered the courage to play on that pitch. Subsequently, he hits Ajay with the bat three times using the euphemism "Inaam."
The thrashing prompts young Ajay to make a resolve. With the pitch-soil in his hands, he vows that he will one day play on that pitch, and nothing will stop him. His resolve gets a further boost when his mother, in her dying declaration, exacts a promise from his elder brother that he will make Ajay a big player.
Taking a leap, the lead actors take their place. Birju grows to be Vinod Mehra and sings to eke out a living, while Ajay grows into Kumar Gaurav, who is sending the ball all over the stadium. Vikram, played by Shakti Kapoor, is already an established player on the Indian cricket team. Shortly, Ajay also manages to secure his spot in the Indian cricket team and displaces Vikram to the 12th man.
The trope of tables turning manifests itself years later when during a match in which Ajay is blazing boundaries, Vikram is asked to fetch water. The only difference is that years back, Ajay did that voluntarily, while Vikram is doing this with a twinge of helplessness.
The film proceeds at its pace, and Vikram, singed by the rising popularity of a "Ghasiyara," also finds that he is his counterpart's rival when it comes to his love, Ritu (Rati Agnihotri). He conspires to cast obstacles in the path of Ajay, and after a honey trap, the gardener's son turned cricketer is thrown out of the Indian cricket team.
The leitmotif of caste appears again when Vikram utters the words, "Ab woh kamzaat na toh cricket ke field mein humare aade nahi ayega na Mohabbat ke maidan mein" (Now that the low-caste won't come in my path either in cricket or in love). Vikram reasserts his belief in the hierarchical caste system by saying, "Ghaas kaatne waale ka beta ghas hi kaatega" (The son of a grass-cutter will cut grass). This is the last time we come across references to caste in the film.
After some struggles, Ajay is able to reinstate himself back in the team. The tribulations faced by the protagonist, Ajay, are mostly because of his caste, and he valiantly overcomes all the hurdles placed in front of him.
Almost all Dalits can relate to the protagonist of the film, as they are subjected to numerous headwinds in their professional lives. "All Rounder" is an ordinary 1980s film with a clichéd storyline, cringe-worthy music, and sub-plot buffoonery of the supporting artists. Despite all this, it stands out because the theme of caste has been intricately woven into the film's plot. The references to caste in the film are more than just passing references, as they appear concurrently.