It’s 2023 and yet, for some reason, Indian film-makers are still pretending as if the story of cricket’s biggest scandal has never been told before. It’s ancient news, of course. Except that dramatic reminders of those dark match-fixing years are no longer reminders. They now feel like a distraction from the power abuse and political puppeteering that, as we speak, plague the country’s favourite sport. Even if one were to revisit the past, it needs to be with fresh eyes and a deeper perspective. The result has to be novel and insightful, something that perhaps Wikipedia or the millions of articles and books and films in the last two decades haven’t quite touched on yet.
But the unimaginatively titled Caught Out is a rehash of everything we already know (and don’t know). There are no blown lids. There are no revolutionary scoops. Worse, it’s given the desi Netflix true-crime treatment – which means that it plays out like a sensationalist scandal-for-dummies documentary that’s less of a film and more of an infotainment flash. It’s modelled to look like a homegrown Bad Sport segment, but there’s already a Hansie Cronje episode in the anthology that’s far more effective. The 77-minute running time is evidence that Caught Out is a flashy highlights reel of a controversy that forever changed the Gentleman’s Game. It’s also the only scandal that film-makers can realistically look at these days, given that anything remotely critical of the BCCI (Board of Control for Cricket in India) now is viewed as nothing less than treason – or, at best, career suicide. Still, 77 minutes are not nearly enough to capture the context and timeline, forget sifting through decades of institutional rot and public disillusionment.
The assumption seems to be that the world only knows of the Cronje saga, when the Delhi Police found telephonic evidence of the South African captain’s misdemeanours in 2000. This, in turn, led to the opening of several cans of worms, culminating in the confession and ban of former Indian captain Mohammed Azharuddin. Those are the high-profile beats. Caught Out skims the linear surface of the body: The ‘pan-Indian’ culture of gambling, the underworld influence, notorious bookie M.K. Gupta, Manoj Prabhakar’s whistleblowing, the Tehelka sting, the CBI investigation, the fan fallout. The commentary is done by former CBI directors, agents, and sports journalists like Sharda Ugra and (Tehelka co-founder) Aniruddha Bahal.
Despite the enthusiasm of talking heads, the narrative framework of the documentary is basic. The archaic BCCI copyright laws ensure that there’s very little archival footage to work with, a gaping hole that’s force-filled by corny recreations of backroom dealings. Older 2023 versions of the officers and journalists fill in for their younger selves – doing important things like typing and writing and walking and scheming and, in one case, stylishly smoking in an introductory shot. A distorted recorded voice of a bookie provides some cheap theatricality. At one point, we even hear the staging of the infamous Cronje phone call, except it’s ‘voiced’ by someone putting on a terrible South African accent.
These devices aren’t unusual for nonfiction pieces. But they’re just tackily handled and timed in Caught Out. The entire Tehelka portion – which features co-founder Minty Tejpal and his colourful descriptions of the sting operation – becomes a low-budget heist movie of its own. Most of it unfurls with anecdotal flair and a lack of curiosity, yet there’s often a sense that the documentary leaves out more than it shows. The coverage is skewed at best. There are points where it panders to a new-age India without quite realising it. Even though it’s explicitly stated that Azharuddin was made an example of by the Board, the documentary mirrors this gaze by exploring him as the only culprit. The images of angry fans (waving saffron flags) burning Azhar effigies are telling. That’s not to say he was innocent. But there were others, most of whose names are either glided over (Kapil Dev is exonerated in a single transition) or excluded for the sake of narrative density. Or at least I’d like to believe that it’s narrative density. Suggesting otherwise might also be legitimising the dull voice of Caught Out.
Sometimes, the intent of a documentary is incidental to its scrambled form. In fact, it’s hard to tell when the film truly ends, or even whether it ends on a hopeful or cautious note. It all happens so fast. That’s the disorienting pace and simplistic stance. That’s the tone of a Test-length quest derailed by T20 vision. And that’s the snackable nature of a documentary that overwrites the urgency of newer crises – best summoned in Death of a Gentleman (2015) – with the hastily compiled memories of old ones.