As “Fire in Babylon” makes it to Indian shores, Anuj Kumar speaks to director Stevan Riley about the team that redefined the way the world played cricket
Watching Fire In Babylon ignites memories of times when cricket was not just about scoring runs but also about self preservation! When Marshall law was the order of the day and death could whisper its way to the pitch. It takes us to a set of islands where cricket was more than a game. A tool to make a political statement, a balm for generations of hurt, a reason to write poetry, a motivation to reclaim dignity. As the much acclaimed documentary on the golden years of West Indies cricket makes it way to select Indian theatres, director Stevan Riley is in India.
It is a riveting but one-sided story and the Englishman says he wanted to make the film from the West Indian point of view. “A film which no West Indian could figure out has been made by an Englishman. I interviewed David Gower, Allan Lamb and Imran Khan as well and it was riveting stuff but I decided against using it because it was unnecessarily making the film complex. There is only so much you can say in a 90-minute film.” Not keen to make straight cut documentaries, Riley says he likes to make feature length documentaries which people would love to watch on the big screen. “If I were a BBC journalist then I would have presented a balanced view. I am telling a character story and that might be one-sided but with humanity intact.”
Riley is a product of the times when Tony Greig’s crafty comment “I intend to make them grovel” had lost its racial bite and the Englishmen had begun to appreciate the skill of West Indians. “I enjoyed cricket as a kid and then I watched Malcolm Marshall ending Andy Lloyd’s Test career in half-an-hour with a nasty bouncer. Suddenly I felt it is a dangerous game. It is not like any other athletic pursuit. I got glued to the game. In the mid ’80s there were many who supported West Indies’ style of aggressive cricket. Englishmen were boring. Those were the times when the English society’s attitude was changing. West Indies was not just about cricket, it was also about Bob Marley…reggae music…The change was from both sides. The Black British community had begun to feel proud to be British. It was evident from their presence in sports and the cultural arena.”
The film brings out that the rise of the West Indies was actually a reaction to years of subjugation by the British colonial masters and spurred by the racial taunts the team faced during the Australian tour of 1975 where it was annihilated by the pace of Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thompson. “Before that West Indians were known as entertainers who will ultimately lose,” says Riley.
So it was actually two white men who spurred them! “Yes. People say they didn’t know fear. They didn’t know what it was like facing lethal bowling. But actually they did. They were scared. Their best batsman Gordon (Greenidge) told me that he was terrified.” From this adversity emerged two men who said ‘never again’. Comparing Clive Lloyd and Viv Richards, Riley says while Lloyd was “more languid and essentially a strategist”, Richards was “more about the whip.” “Lloyd brought the different identities of the islands together. Richards took the national identity to pan Africanism and spiritualism. He was reaching out to all black people. Lloyd used soft diplomacy to handle the Board but by the time Richards took over, the team had become stronger than the Board.”
The popular perception is that West Indians don’t let their emotions erupt but here they let it go.
Riley agrees. “I spent time a lot of time with them. They have said a lot of things in their autobiographies which they do not say in front of the camera. It reflects their dignity. I pointed out specific instances. Rastafarian Frank I” Francis, whom I have extensively interviewed taught Richards and that’s why you get that tone of self determination in Richards.” It is the Rastafarian spin that gives an intellectual nuance to the film, for Babylon is the term for systems that oppress and discriminate against the dispossessed.
It gives the documentary a reason to easily switch from the cricket to the political pitch.
“It is political history and not necessarily a cricket film,” admits Riley. “Cricket is just a metaphor. You can’t say a 20-year-long history in 90 minutes and if I have to bind it cricket had to figure. Cricket is the motor of this period. In their politics cricket always led the way. Even when there was no black representation in the islands there was black representation in the cricket team. Before you had a black prime minister you had a black cricket captain.” And as Michael Holding says in the film, “Cricket is the only thing they do together.”
According to Riley the film had done the most for Colin Croft. Croft was part of the 1982 rebel tour to Apartheid-divided South Africa and was banned from international cricket. “Colin was quietly waiting for this film because it has reinstated his position in the success of the team. I loved interviewing him. He made a political decision and was ostracised. But I don’t agree. The guys who went to South Africa did inspire native people. Hershelle Gibbs says that he saw them play and it did inspire him. But yes, it was not the official policy. Overall it was a mixed message.”
The fearsome foursome was led by Andy Roberts who turned the bouncer into a precision art. From murderers to terrorists, they got many adjectives for their belligerence. “Bouncer was their lethal weapon but not the only weapon. Had it been, they would have become predictable. They had real repertoire. After all they beat England even after the one bouncer per over rule was enforced.”
Riley finds some similarities between the success of the Indian cricket team and the Lloyd’s West Indian outfit. “But these things are fragile as West Indies found out, Australia figured out. It is more of a generational thing. Look at Spain — they didn’t win anything in football for decades but now they are unstoppable.”
Done with cricket, Riley says his next documentary “Everything or Nothing” is on James Bond films which will release this November to mark the 50th anniversary of Bond films.