Creator: Karan Anshuman
Cast: Richa Chadha, Vivek Anand Oberoi, Angad Bedi, Tanuj Virwani, Amit Sial, Sanjay Suri, Siddhant Chaturvedi
Being a cricket fan in an Asian country brings with it a curious kind of cynical optimism. Ever since the term “fixing” entered our collective consciousness at the turn of the century, even the purest of reactions occur with an asterisk. We still celebrate victories. We still mourn losses. But deep down, we doubt the integrity of both. We curse and suspect, we theorize and speculate, but we continue to watch in the hope of identifying redemption. We watch less to feel and more to be proven right or wrong.
When we speak about them, we imagine things. We imagine scenarios beyond our understanding. We imagine shifty faces and telltale signs on the field, and we imagine cricketing heroes and boardroom villains. And depending on who we are and where we come from, this imagination has a language. It has a grammar.
The grammar is almost never subtle; it is even more pronounced in tournaments like the IPL, where the game becomes more accessible and visible in the murky slipstream of primetime entertainment. Certain half-truths assume the pretend-theatricality of WWE in our minds – complete with coherent narratives, insidious motives, uncanny choreography, fake contests and colourful characters. Even if we know that the ‘Gentleman’s Game’ isn’t sacrosanct anymore, we tend to secretly admire the method – and the sheer rehearsed madness – of the sacrilege at hand. Denial becomes cinematic. Opinions assume the soundtrack of storytelling.
And, over time, further validated by Madhur Bhandarkar’s once-effective brand of mainstream myth busting, an entire generation of filmmakers now imagines in dramatically expository tones, too.
Inside Edge (produced by Excel Entertainment’s Farhan Akhtar and Ritesh Sidhwani), a vast Amazon Prime Video’s series comprising ten forty-minute episodes, is a committed manifestation of this heightened culture. It caters to our paranoia by being unapologetically sensational – and distinctly humourless – in tone. To be fair, there’s nothing funny about feeling cheated by a sport. Most of us are in an abusive relationship with the ethical undertones of world cricket. But this rage and disillusionment against the system isn’t entirely blind here. It seems to have been made by people who have been hurt by the game as much as they have loved it. This is an inherently angry show: one that wants to confirm our worst fears by approximating its exposé-style to a language we’ve seen all too often.
Thankfully, owing to over 400 minutes of content, it has no choice but to dig deeper and explore instead of merely skirting around the ambiguity of famous scandals. You sense that the makers know too much, but thankfully not enough to become speculative outsiders. Not enough to lose complete objectivity about their passion. At some level, these strong emotions – as garishly packaged as they are in the context of commercial consumption – are fairly informed. There is a design to its darkness.
Centered upon the trials and travails of a franchise called Mumbai Mavericks in the Power Play League (PPL), Inside Edge (directed by Karan Anshuman, Bangistan) combines unsettling facts with chartered fiction in the most deliberate manner possible. Fortunately, to an extent, it’s more Page 3 than Heroine, slightly more self-aware than self-obsessed, and more tempered ODI-innings-building than explosive T20 hitting.
Let me explain. On an operatic macro level, the storytelling is clinical. Every character has an individual graph, conflicts and resolutions, and many real-life incidents organically inform the overall mood of the narrative. In fact, the fifth episode, which is virtually the midway point, begins with almost every face in an airplane in various states of crises. More importantly, it is clear by now that almost everyone is beyond redemption; a “happy ending” will only be a lesser degree of corruption and tragedy. There is no good guy, and everyone is tarnished either by secret histories or present circumstances.
The writing, at least on a storyboarding and television level, is some of the smartest I’ve seen in an Indian show. There are hooks, cliffhanger endings and very few loopholes
In our head we’ve marked out the key consciences of each role: an ethically upright captain (Angad Bedi, as Arvind) in a failing marriage, a composed coach (Sanjay Suri) unable to shake off his past, the quintessentially talented “bad boy” of the team (Tanuj Virwani, as star batsman Vayu Raghavan), the crass rotten egg of the squad (Amit Sial, as spinner Devender Mishra), the impressionable small-town Iqbal-ish baby of the team (Siddhant Chaturvedi, as fast bowler Prashant Kanaujia), the fading-superstar owner in a testosterone-laden world (Richa Chadha, as Zarina Malik), and the devious new co-owner with Christian-Grey-ish intent (Vivek Anand Oberoi, as Vikrant Dhawan).
The writing, at least on a storyboarding and television level, is some of the smartest I’ve seen in an Indian show. There are hooks, cliffhanger endings and very few loopholes. The simplicity isn’t entirely patronizing. The landscape is precise.
But on a freewheeling made-for-internet scale, the script – the actual details of the screenplay – lacks any kind of potential originality. Except for one tremendously crafted episode that gets into the mechanics of large-scale betting and spot-fixing by intercutting events with an ongoing match, the filmmaking itself is generic and unremarkable. The lines are tired, the swearing is unimaginative and stilted, the ethnic diversity is poorly informed, the performances are derivative (Vivek Anand Oberoi’s self-satisfied grin and accented drawl is hopelessly contrived), the cricketing action resists technicalities, and the direction is perhaps not indulgent or voice-oriented enough.
Moreover, cricket is not the sort of visually extravagant sport whose (lack of) athleticism can be disguised by snazzy camera angles and flashy editing patterns. The gully-level techniques and iffy physical attributes of performers hoping to “recreate” the pace of professional on-field action become dead giveaways when there’s only one wide master shot to play with.
With borderline stereotypes and limitations like these, shows often run the risk of earning its stripes by descending into sly Easter-Egg-spotting category (“Oh, she must be Preity Zinta,” “Is that really what happened to Bob Woolmer?”). However, this one is a little more subversive with its clichés. For instance, besides all the awkward cusswords-drugs-and-sex montages, the device of smoking is used as an effective play on temptation and morality; a simple shot of a cigarette being lit at one point by a character who has quit smoking signals a temporary crossover to the dark side.
There is also an instinctive understanding of human behavior beneath some seemingly loud caricatures; the alcoholic wife of a protagonist is first and foremost a damning picture of domestic rejection. She might drink straight from the bottle to typify her condition – doesn’t everyone on screen? – but she also retains the perceptive recklessness of making a desperate move on only the playboy of the team.
Perhaps the biggest thing this series has going for itself is its ability to make the narrative look closed-ended (down to the final ball and all), without compromising on the terminal integrity of its faces. The war might be won, but the battle, as we are eventually reminded, is a losing one. Though there’s a brief illusion of closure with the plot twists and build-to-climax formula, there is really no definitive ending. Rome isn’t healed in a day.
The writers respect the seriousness of the universe they construct, and don’t offer flimsy solutions or instant gratification like most films do. Such is the subject that there can be a second, third and fourth season by natural extension, without having to force us into the realms of the suspension-of-disbelief syndrome.
It leaves me with the sort of restricted intensity I experience when I manage to feel invested in a close game of cricket again. On one hand, I’m excited about what is unfolding in the moment. But on the other, I’m well aware that I’m an unwitting participant in a system that wants us to forget the “accidental” death of a disgraced ex South African captain and “natural” demise of a high-profile Pakistan team coach in the middle of a World Cup campaign.
If I absolutely have to be disgruntled, I’d rather be distracted by the histrionics of a series like this than be led into the sunset by the inherent hopefulness of a choppy sports biopic. Something as tidily calculated as Inside Edge keeps me from dreaming freely again. It keeps me cautiously pessimistic – or, on a better day, cynically optimistic – about a future that might have been designed way before the last over is bowled.