American supermodel, Cindy Crawford’s photograph was not meant to be the only foreign element in Dev Anand starter 1990 cricket-themed action film Awwal Number.
The film’s songwriter, media analyst and former Reliance Entertainment chairman Amit Khanna recalls using Sunil Gavaskar’s office to organise a meeting between Dev Anand and Imran Khan, when the latter was playing in London. Dev Anand, in fact, would often visit London only to watch Wimbledon face-offs and cricket matches.
Imran Khan declined Dev Anand’s offer to act in Awwal Number, saying he was too firmly ensconced in his cricketing career.
The Cindy Crawford connection, of course, was limited to the blue-ribboned picture of her that appears in a scene where Dev Anand’s character, DIG Vikram Singh, says to his half-brother, Ranvir Singh a.k.a. Ronny, played by Aditya Pancholi: “Like every year, this year too, I have placed her favourite blue ribbon on her picture. You remember she would tie the ribbon on her hair.” The DIG says this to Ronny when he, upon seeing the picture, refers to her as “my mother”. Hearing this, the DIG corrects Ronny: “Our mother.”
Going back to the casting story, Khanna says that after being politely turned down by Imran, Dev Anand approached producer-director-writer Tahir Hussain. He knew Tahir Hussain because they had worked on films together. The reason for this was Aamir Khan.
After Imran Khan, Dev Anand was keen on Aamir, Tahir Hussain’s son, essaying the role of Sunny, the street kid who had become the new cricket star replacing Ronny in Team India for a one-day cricket series against Australia. Dev Anand was the director and writer of Awwal Number.
Aamir had just had an enormous hit with his debut film, “Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak”, directed by his cousin (and Nasir’s son) Mansoor Khan, who’s now a cheese-maker in Coorg. There was no question of Aamir saying “no” — he says till today that it is the only film he signed without reading the script.
The result: Aamir played the cricketer who wins the match for India with a six, despite being hit on the head by a vicious bouncer. Pancholi’s Ronnie plays his rival. Dev Anand, besides being the Mumbai DIG, is also the president of the “selection committee”, who foils an attempt by terrorists to blow up the stadium in a helicopter.
Awwal Number launched the career of Ekta Sohoni, who went on to marry Mohnish Behl (now better-known for their daughter, southern film star Pranutan Behl), and featured several hummable songs written by Amit Khanna, set to Bappi Lahiri’s music.
Most prominent among them was “Poocho na kaisa mazaa aa raha he”, which talks about Aamir’s impoverished background and his rise to the Indian cricket team. Khanna also organised the in-match sponsors, Garware, of the film’s one-day match between India and Australia.
Awwal Number, incidentally, was not the first Bollywood film on cricket. In 1959, Dev Anand had starred as a cricketer in “Love Marriage”, directed by Subodh Mukerji, and co-starring Mala Sinha. In 1984, Mohan Kumar made “All-Rounder” starring Kumar Gaurav as a budding cricketer, but it did not work at the box-office.
It wasn’t until “Lagaan” (2001) that cricket and Bollywood proved to be a successful combination, and coincidentally, it starred Aamir Khan, also its producer.