The Fire and The Smoke: A (belated) review of Fire in Babylon (2011)

Written by  //  July 29, 2011  //  Media & Popular Culture  //  1 Comment

Anticipation and expectation, in the context of a long awaited film, are usually harbingers of disappointment.

Each day that is passed, spent eagerly awaiting the release, adds to the burden of expectation rendering it unreasonable beyond the hope of any mortal creation’s ability to meet. Rarely, just every once so rarely, do you come across a masterpiece that is worth every second of the wait. And more.

“Fire in Babylon” is one such masterpiece.

I was crushed when I realized it won’t be released in India. I was thrilled when I pre-ordered it off Amazon. I spent day after fruitless day bolting to the door at every ring of the bell hoping that I could finally lay my hands on it. I gave up on legality and finally torrented it… just as it landed on the doorstep.

I spent eighty minutes watching mouth agape, as the magnificently inspiring (and in some places, fairly terrifying) story of the West Indian team of the 80s was told. Legends in their rich baritones and smooth Jamiacan, Barbadian, and Guyanese accents tell us their story, interspersed with snippets of the action of the field; everything from the terrifying afternoon of pain Michael Holding delivered to Brian Close in 1978 to the beautiful brutality of Vivian Richards’ cutting and pulling his way to frighteningly quick hundreds.

Make no mistake. This is not just your average youtube playlist of great cricket videos. The point made in the film is complex and nuanced, and is a serious attempt to understand the sociological, political, and economic circumstances that spawned this team of undeniable greats. It is a story of the great cultural explosion that gave the world Bob Marley; of the world-wide political movement that culminated in the end of apartheid; and the economic upheaval in the world of cricket that would change the game forever.

Every cricket lover thinks they know the story, or at least most of it. Clive Lloyd forged a team of unbeatable geniuses who inspired terror and fear in opponents but proved to be the source of joy for the inhabitants of tiny islands scattered between North and South America. As Andy Roberts puts it, for the first time, these tiny specks on the map had produced something, that was, without doubt, the finest in the whole world.

Greenidge, Haynes, Richards, Lloyd, Kallicharan, Gomes, Dujon, Holding, Garner, Roberts, and Croft. Followed later by Richardson, Lara, Hooper, Ambrose, Walsh, Bishop, and the greatest of them all, Malcolm Marshall.

What more do I need to say?

Just a couple of things.

The film is an unabashedly one-sided telling of the tale. In the eyes of the teller, the Great West Indian team was doing nothing more than setting right great historical wrongs — slavery and apartheid. Yet, they seem to go about their task with much the same tools as slavery and apartheid used; fear and intimidation (albeit on the cricket pitch). It is a bit jarring to hear Bunny Wailer say that the West Indies’ team winning was like the slaves holding the whip against the masters. One can’t help get the feeling that winning the game and being the best, at times, took second place to cause hurt and fear in the batsmen.

An instance of this is in the (in)famous spell delivered by Holding and Roberts to Brian Close and John Edrich in the 1976 series at Old Trafford. In the documentary, we see a photo of Brian Close taken in the pavilion immediately afterward; his torso covered almost entirely in purple bruises all roughly the size of a cricket ball.

To be fair, the uneasiness in the narration when mentioning the Sabina Park test of 1976 against India is evident. Indian batsmen were no great players of fast bowling in general, but to rough up a side that you know has no means to retaliate smacks of playground bullying. This was before Kapil Dev got on to the scene, and much, much before Ishant Sharma had West Indian batsman hopping and fending with pace and bounce. (In a strange reversal of fates, Devendroo Bishoo, the dimunitive Guyanese leggie was the best spinner on show in the recent India-West Indies series. Full circle indeed.)

Another disquieting aspect of the film is the absence of any Indo-Caribbean voices despite the huge role players like Sonny Ramadhin, Rohan Kanhai and Alvin Kallicharran played in the West Indian teams of old (as others have also noted with dismay). With its emphasis on black nationalism, black pride and black power, all linking back to the history of slavery and oppression, “Fire in Babylon” almost wholly excludes the experiences of the minority East Indians brought to the islands as indentured labour. In a sense, it denies the multi-racial character of many West Indian countries like Guyana and Trinidad & Tobago. The exclusionary aspect also seems evident in the selection policies of the Board; Shivnarine Chanderpaul was the first Indo-Caribbean player to make his debut for the West Indies for sixteen years. In a strange way, black nationalism seemed to perpetuate the very same methods of the apartheid, but against slightly different set of racial groups.

Perhaps the most problematic parts of the film’s story (as also the real life sequence of events) are the Packer rebels and the rebel tour to Apartheid South Africa. Specifically, the very different ways in which the Packer rebels and the Apartheid rebels are treated.

“Packers’ Circus”, much as it disrupted international cricket, was a good thing, no doubt. It shook up the Boards and gave players a shot at professional salaries. The USD 25000 that was on offer was small change compared to today’s IPL seven figure salaries, but the latter wouldn’t have been possible without Packer offering such then-unheard sums to players. The “price” of course, was to have to stop playing for the West Indies team.

Almost all of the top players, and most of the legends, were willing to pay the price. Of course, nominally, they would be playing for a West Indian team, but it was not the West Indian team which was away playing international cricket. In the film, players who were talking about what it means to black people to have a strong West Indian team suddenly get defensive when it comes to the Packer series. It’s true that players were paid a pittance, but playing cricket for the West Indies, if the players were to be believed, went beyond the boundary or pure monetary consideration.

The rebellion inspired by Packer’s cash calls this into question. The documentary does not raise these hard questions or probe deeper into the players’ motivations or iron out the seeming contradictions.

The same superficiality marks its treatment of the rebel tour to Apartheid South Africa. In 1982 and 1983-84 sixteen West Indian players, some whom had played for the West Indies and others who hadn’t had the chance, went on a cricket tour of South Africa, then barred from international sport under the Gleneagles Agreement. The motivation was simple: money.

We see Viv Richards confidently turn down the money without a second thought, and he goes on to castigate in no uncertain terms, the players who took up the offer. Of the rebels, only Colin Croft gets his say in the matter, but as this brilliant cricinfo piece makes clear, he faced perhaps the least of the dire consequences of having agreed to tour apartheid South Africa.

Let’s be clear. The West Indian players should not have toured South Africa as it was in the teeth of an international sporting ban and seemed to support a much-hated regime. Yet, the actual “evil” of their actions seems fairly marginal compared to the consequences they suffered back home. Apart from being banned from practicing their chosen profession, most were rendered social outcasts and struggled to find employment or entry into respectable society. A fate that members of other rebel teams from England and Australia did not face. What perhaps was most galling might have been the reaction of the erstwhile Packer rebels; those who themselves quit West Indian colours to play for a businessman’s money. Here was a chance to examine and expose this seeming hypocrisy and contradiction in reactions to essentially the same actions, but “Fire In Babylon” takes the easy route and re-iterates the universal condemnation of the apartheid rebels without critical examination.

Even before “Fire In Babylon” came out, the story of West Indian cricket has been told in film, and been told magnificently in an episode of the BBC mini-series, “Empire of Cricket”. It is a story with many angles, many colourful and interesting personalities, rousing highs and despairing lows. It is a story that is linked inextricably with the history and the heritage of the West Indian people as a whole. What CLR James began with his magnificent tome on West Indian cricket has been carried forward by a host of others, and “Fire In Babylon” will definitely take its place alongside.

Yet, the era of West Indian domination, seen as it is with rose tinted glasses in the present period of long decline, needs more critical examination. A deeper understanding is needed of that period, contradictions and all, to properly appreciate where West Indies cricket has been, where it is now, and where it might want to go. For, as the late Bob Marley best put it,

“If you know your History,
Then you would know where you’re coming from
Then you wouldn’t have to ask me
Who the hell do you think I am.”

One Comment on "The Fire and The Smoke: A (belated) review of Fire in Babylon (2011)"

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