Director: Karan Boolani
Cast: Mohammad Samad, Yash Dholiye, Rajesh Tailang, Mahesh Manjrekar, Ratna Pathak Shah, Amruta Subhash, Geetanjali Kulkarni
More than three months after rolling out its first six episodes, the Netflix series Selection Day – based on Aravind Adiga’s slumdog-cricketer-styled novel – has released the final six episodes of its first season. In this “second half,” teenaged batting prodigies Manju (Samad) and Radha (Dholiye) continue to labour towards Mumbai’s Under-16 Selection trials under the ruthless gaze of their father from hell, Mohan Kumar (Rajesh Tailang). The plot moves forward, the character arcs acquire a little more individualism, the stakes feel higher and a new director takes charge (Udayan Prasad gives way to Karan Boolani). But the fundamental flaws of Selection Day remain the same – its narrative language, as with most homegrown underdog sports dramas, is derived from movies about sports rather than the sport itself.
The craft remains basic, and the actors, fine as they are, are wasted at the mercy of makers who seem to insist on every internal conflict being spelled out by self-conscious faces. Manju is the hero of the series, and he is given way too many devices to depict his vulnerability. There’s the “cool” Hindu deity (Shiv Pandit) who is more of a cheeky comment on Indian religion than a spiritual guide (I like that he is a progressive figure: a God who is a Science nerd), a brash brother who can’t understand Manju’s non-macho pursuit of academics over sport, and the strange homoerotic tension with the school’s rich boy, Javed, who is on an existential trip of his own. Manju’s problems are conventional: cruel father, coming-of-age journey, sensitive temperament. Radha’s arc – that of a born cricketer who is struggling to thrive without the influence (“partnership”) of his brother – is more complex, but the writing doesn’t afford him more than a single dimension.
You also sense that the makers aren’t sure whether to paint Mohan as a victim of his circumstances or a flawed survivor of middle India; we are made to empathize with him when he becomes a small-time entrepreneur (“Mohan’s Champion Tonic”), but Tailang’s performance hints that an actor of his calibre might have been desperate for better lines and tonal consistency. Young Javed’s track, too, goes from caricaturish to serious – he becomes a misrepresented Malabar Hill symbol of privileged India starring in his own “poor little rich boy” tragedy. Coach Tommy Sir (Mahesh Manjrekar), meanwhile, has a dying wife and his own tale of redemption, while his principal, Nellie (Ratna Pathak Shah), smokes up and speaks to her dead husband. When asked about why he never fought the accusations levelled against him, Tommy Sir explains that cricket is an escape for people: “Who are we to shatter that illusion?” This line alone does a better job of explaining cricket in Asia than, say, a high-profile web show that struggles to explore the line.
More importantly, it’s not so much the dramatic beats of the story as it is the process to expose those beats that lack a sense of artistic integrity. To draw a romantic parallel, imagine the hard yards – the running between the wickets, the middle overs, the consolidatory spells – between the flashy hits and slog overs. In fact, the running between the wickets is quite literally an issue here; this cricketing skill is a prime indicator of the sort of training undertaken by artists who try to convincingly immerse themselves into the roles of determined athletes. The technique is passable, but the protagonists look uncomfortable in their pads on the pitch, which goes to show that perhaps not even the cameras can disguise the all-round conditioning of those who play the country’s most watched game. An inning is often defined by these unassuming traits, and Selection Day fails to be originally expressive within this context.
For instance, there’s a scene in which the shady land shark (Akshay Oberoi), who has taken the boys under his wings, decides to “fix” a match. He wants his investments to bear dividends at any cost; the loan sharks are on his tail. He nonchalantly walks into a maidaan, where one of the umpires for the upcoming match is seated near a net-practice session. This meeting of theirs is supposed to be top-secret. Far from conspicuous though, Mr. Shark sports a fancy suit with slick shoes, as he not very secretly slides a brown envelope full of cash to the sheepish umpire, who in turn bargains about his rate. I’m not sure the makers notice it, but if a man dressed like an Italian gangster sits next to a veteran umpire on a bench in the middle of a ground, you don’t exactly need an ICC investigation committee to identify a suspicious transaction. If there is any one image that defines this show – which, in a way, is a modern-day cautionary tale about how “adaptation” amounts to more than just sociocultural translation – this is it. I had mentioned in the review of its first six episodes that Selection Day had barely touched upon the meat of its universe. The show has no such excuses left. The meat has gone from stale to undercooked. Excuse me while I re-read Andre Agassi’s Open.