With the ICC Cricket World Cup starting today, ESPN Films’ latest documentary, The Little Master, will debut Sunday (9 p.m. ET, ESPN). Front Row caught up with the film’s director, Gotham Chopra. His father Deepak Chopra, a best-selling author, narrated the film.
What was it that drew you to making this film?
I grew up in Boston as a diehard Red Sox fan, and every summer I traveled with my family to India to see my grandparents. The only thing there that was vaguely reminiscent of baseball was cricket. Like baseball, it was a pretty complex game with lots of subtleties and a rich history that’s tangled with India’s colonial legacy. There was always something fascinating about the game for me. Fast forward to the last few years when I spent more time working and traveling in India and watching cricket grow – and this one iconic player has been sitting at the middle of it for two decades: Sachin Tendulkar. It became clear to me that there may be no one more famous than Sachin — even though half the planet may have no idea who he is. Then you look at his story: an athlete who pretty much won everything and earned every accolade — except the ultimate prize, the World Cup. Then, his final chance to win it comes in his home country, alongside teammates that were literally not born when his career began? It kind of wrote itself!
As an American of Indian descent, do you think that the kind of passion you saw surrounding Sachin has any equivalent in the U.S.?
There’s something almost post-modern when it comes to Sachin and his place in India. He may be the last real icon of an era in India, which is modernizing so fast. I’d say Sachin has more of a Mickey Mantle or Ted Williams aura about him which doesn’t exist so much any more in the U.S. – or anywhere really – in a time when we put athletes on pedestals and then enjoy toppling them over.
In the film, you say that cricket and Sachin have been a “guiding light” for India. Can you explain that a bit more?
India’s one of the most dynamic places on planet Earth. Its racial and religious diversity is unlike any other nation. The gap between rich and poor, the haves and have-nots, the fastest growing middle class in the world, but a massive population that is also being left behind, an unwieldy economy and a military and political system eager to cement their place amongst the global elite. You throw that all together the way it has been over the last decade in India and it’s a very combustible mix. But amidst all that is this one sport that everyone seems to love. And amongst that sport, there’s this one guy – Sachin – that no one seems to have a bad word to say about.