bandon mein tha dum

Director: Neeraj Pandey
Script: Bharat Sundaresan, Vaibhav Mutha
DOP: Arvind Singh
Editor: Praveen Kathikuloth
Genre: Documentary series
Streaming on: Voot Select

The history books don’t outrightly suggest that the 2020/21 Border-Gavaskar Trophy is India’s greatest ever Test series triumph. On paper, without prior knowledge of the squad and team sheets, it looks like nothing special. But in hindsight, one would be hard-pressed to prove otherwise. It’s not the narrow 2-1 scoreline – which mirrored that of the fabled 2001/02 series – so much as the context and circumstances: the 36 All Out, the makeshift captain, the injuries, the debuts, the rag-tag team, the Sydney draw, the Gabba heist. I remember feeling envious when an unfancied Sri Lankan team went to South Africa in 2019 and pulled off a modern-day sporting miracle. Overseas victories come at a premium, especially for long-suffering South Asian teams. But I always believed it would be India who’d unlock the floodgates of ‘away’ fairy-tales. So when they did unlock the next level in 2020/21 – in the middle of a global pandemic, against greater odds, against logic, bio-bubbles, reasoning and life itself – it felt like most of us had finally become the fans we had often dreamed of. 

It also felt like a story, about the story, was imminent. But more as a threat than a treat. Suffice to say that the title slate, a tri-coloured Bandon Mein Tha Dum! – and especially that exclamation mark – didn’t exactly inspire confidence. But that’s the thing about this new four-part docu-series. It sort of subconsciously imitates the tonality of the cricket it’s about. India’s win was a bizarre marriage of everyman grit and tacky-but-effective flamboyance: the grit of Pujara and Ashwin and Vihari, the flamboyance of Gill and Pant and Siraj. The grit here is symbolized by the sharp and journalistic coverage of the script, co-written by cricket scribe Bharat Sundaresan (author of The Dhoni Touch). ESPNcricinfo writer Sidharth Monga is also credited as ‘cricket consultant’. The script, then, isn’t just the Hindi-language voiceover narrating the ebbs and flows of the series. It’s the resistance to external noise – no family interviews, no reaction shots, no backroom footage, no lofty analogies and speeches, no social tangents, no ‘primary players’. A lot of it might be down to archival access as well, but it preserves the sanctity of both the sport and the storytelling. It’s pure cricket – four episodes, four memorable tests – through the eyes of those involved, and through the eyes of some watching. The writing is the no-nonsense equivalent of Pujara’s attrition, Ashwin’s eloquence, Vihari’s simplicity.

Knowing who brings what to the table in terms of both emotion and structure – the way Leander Paes did in Break Point – is crucial for commercial film-makers who strive to amplify the inherently human pitch of sport.

The flamboyance, meanwhile, comes from director Neeraj Pandey (MS Dhoni: The Untold Story), who isn’t so adept in the art of leaving the ball. He bombards this script with the stylistic excesses of fiction. The war-like background score; Jimmy Shergill as the voiceover artist; the James-Bond-inspired episode titles (Skyfall, You Only Live Twice, A View to a Kill, License to Kill); flashbacks within the footage (!); random end-credits ‘fun’ questions; even the contrasting colour tones (cold dark-on-sky for the Australian bytes of Pat Cummins and Tim Paine; warm indoor setup for the Indians). Every other minute, an episode succumbs to a rush of blood, perilously veering between the volume of an infomercial and the briskness of a Youtube highlights package, putting both the viewer and the story itself on edge. 

At first, I suspected that the sound scripting and the corny film-making would be at odds with each other. But after a while, it became like watching a Pant-Pujara partnership. One holds up an end and absorbs body blows, the other throws caution to the wind. There is a strange sense of harmony between fire and ice. For instance, the shot of Rahane running out an in-form Kohli at Adelaide becomes a trauma device in a proper character arc. When Jadeja then runs Rahane out after his century in the very next match at Melbourne, Rahane’s voice reveals how he refused to let Jadeja be as deflated as he once was – the (black-and-white) Kohli flashback ties in neatly here, even if it’s a bit like a Manmohan Desai movie. Similarly, Sundaresan’s tweets and footage of the net sessions are woven into the narrative, calling back to certain injuries, weather changes or mental adjustments. At times, the camera zooms in on a player’s face during an interview slowly to heighten the tension, only because the next shot in the match is a zoom-out of the field. (It looks more instinctive than intentional). At others, interviewees like mental conditioning coach Paddy Upton draw a clumsy parallel to India’s history in war and a nature of retaliation, which sounds eerily like the ‘ghar mein ghus ke marenge’ rhetoric (which was incidentally a Sehwag tweet after the Gabba win).

An underrated skill of crafting these documentaries is the cutting and placement of the interviews. What the players and professionals say is not in the makers’ hands, only the questions are. Bandon Mein Tha Dum! does well in terms of controlling the pressure points of the series through talking heads, and not with visual gimmickry and dynamic frame rates. What this also does is reveal the rhythm of communication and the diversity of voices within a team. You see Ashwin intellectualize a moment and crack a joke, followed by Siraj wondering aloud like an innocent schoolkid. You see Pant describe his thought process in amusing tone and detail, followed by Rahane pacing the narrative with his spare observations. And then you see them on the field, looking nothing and everything like the people being interviewed behind closed doors.

I particularly enjoyed the Australian interviews – not because India won, but because Paine and Cummins’ reactions feel more immediate, and present a disarming cultural polarity to their South Asian counterparts. You can tell that their saltiness is not provocative; it comes from a deep understanding of the game and its role in creating character from crisis. It’s a study in how to weaponize the verbal component of documentaries about stories that have already happened. Knowing who brings what to the table in terms of both emotion and structure – the way Leander Paes did in Break Point – is crucial for commercial film-makers who strive to amplify the inherently human pitch of sport. 

One might assume that it’s hard to mess up an already winning story. But given the track record of Hindi sports dramas, I’d say it’s easier, because the makers tend to blur the lines between where life ends and the sport begins. Could Bandon Mein Tha Dum! have done with more restraint and nuance? Probably – and that would have been a very different, if not smarter, docu-series. But it’s also true that the tone might have worked better for India’s previous 2-1 win down under, where an old-school Pujara ground an Australian team sans Smith and Warner to dust. The fact is that, in the 2020-21 series, it was the crudeness that defined the cleverness. That exclamation mark – awkward but resounding – made all the difference.

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