The narrow path has everything—a huge dirt dumper, closely huddled shanties exploding with people, a car that bears evidence of every bird in the city and a man on a cycle with a nervous goat tied to the back. This is not a film set, but leads to one.
The entrance to one establishment is covered with a well-worn curtain. Facing the curtain is a shop named “Global Classes: Special in English. Open in vaccations too.” Inside is a musty room with peeling green walls and filled with cigarette smoke, trophies on a shelf and a sign that says “Kashmir ka masla sulajhne tak udhari bandh (No credit till the Kashmir issue is resolved).”
People of different ages scowl in concentration at three carrom boards, inside what is a carrom club. This is one of about 12 such clubs in Malvani, in Mumbai’s northern suburb of Malad.
Key players: Kupe runs one of the carrom clubs in Malvani, Mumbai. Ashesh Shah / Mint
Outside the club, on a plastic chair placed at will on the road, sits Zaid Kupe, who runs the club and is a former “champion” of the area. He has now donned a new role—of a carrom consultant on the film Striker—and sits with the movie’s director Chandan Arora for company.
Set in the 1980s, against the dominance of the underworld in this area, the film uses carrom as a central theme in storytelling and was shot on sets created in Malvani. Siddharth (who popularly goes by one name only) plays the lead character, his first Hindi film since the 2006 hit Rang de Basanti. Many characters in the film are real carrom players.
The film may yet succeed in highlighting carrom as a serious sport rather than a perceived summer vacation favourite. But any attention to carrom through the film would be incidental. As Arora explains, “Carrom is used as an element to cheer your hero.” What it might primarily do is highlight the underbelly of the sport, the murky if glamorous side of betting, unexpected in such a genteel sport.
Residents of this area would often play for money. “Bids” would be on a board, even for a single shot. Kupe explains how he and his mentor, former national champion Suryakant Bhairalu, would go around various clubs in Mumbai, hustling. Reminiscent of the Paul Newman-Tom Cruise starrer Color of Money, they would never reveal Bhairalu’s identity or let him play. Once it was established that Kupe was the player, opponents would bet on the untried Bhairalu, raising the stakes on the assumption that he could not be better than Kupe. They would discover too late that their new opponent was not only better but probably the best in the country.
The two would be constantly looking for dhoors, people who didn’t know them but were willing to bet big money. Kupe, who now says he “wasted those years playing all the time”, claims the stakes had often gone to Rs1 lakh.
That culture of carrom in Malvani has mellowed over the years, the number of clubs has dwindled from 25 at the height of Bhairalu’s success to about a dozen. The reason is also, explains former national champion Arun Deshpande, that carrom has moved out of the ghettos into white-collar territory, among people not interested in gambling. Deshpande has written two books on carrom, Technique and Skill and Players Guide.
This subculture of carrom in Malvani, however, fits into the theme of Striker. Siddharth says it took him three months of research to get into the “skin of the character”. “I had to look and play like one. I met a lot of people here and mixed up their mannerisms and style to come up with Surya, my character in the film,” adds the actor.
Striker director Chandan Arora. Ashesh Shah / Mint
Arora was researching for a docudrama when he chanced upon Malvani, encouraged also by his line producer, who lives here. Fascinated with the place—“I would have never imagined anything like this”—he came up with the story. Along the way inspiration came from people such as Kupe, who has a character named after him in the film.
“There is still so much to be explored in the city. I have tried to get the psyche of the people, the jargon, the mannerism from this area into the film,” says Arora.
Just to validate that point about jargon, Kupe tells some inquisitive children to “wad ja” (go away) and some others to “chamak jao” (get wise). “Our unique use of language and expertise in carrom became so typical that people in other clubs of Mumbai would instantly know we are players from Malvani,” says Kupe.
Among those eagerly looking forward to the film is the joint secretary of the Maharashtra Carrom Association, J.V. Sangam, who hopes the film will do more for carrom than a few scenes of Munna Bhai MBBS did.
Striker releases in theatres on Friday.