Producer: Conde Nast Entertainment
Streaming on: Netflix
Cricket documentaries in India rarely aim beyond the easy annals of access filmmaking. In a way, this genre reflects the sociocultural inadequacies of a nation whose many estates rely on visibility and “contacts” to appease its citizens. There seems to be a clear notion among filmmakers that die-hard cricket enthusiasts are more than happy to be insatiable voyeurs…and that they would rather hear old stories in the voice of its famous participants than new stories aching to be discovered. As a result, we hardly see anyone truly interested in investigating the nature of the game. All we see, then, are behind-the-scenes visual representations of facts that already exist, with insights that refuse to extend beyond the polite nosiness of the cameras.
In that sense, Cricket Fever: Mumbai Indians represents the peak of sanitized access porn. This, only a few years after Sachin: A Billion Dreams simply exploited an incurable sense of nostalgia to present a narrative that looked like it had been edited by the man himself. Similarly, it’s the franchise owners here, the Ambanis, who are positioned to define the ‘image’ of this particular 8-episode series. Young Akash Ambani is a constant presence on the field and in the dressing room, which is why one can’t help but imagine that the cameras are only allowed as much freedom as the wealthiest Indian family in the world deems appropriate.
But forget about what we don’t see. For starters, the series chooses an unremarkable IPL campaign to wax intimate about. There is nothing more futile than trying to make a story out of a non-story. In striving to depict the Mumbai Indians’ middling 2018 season as a monumental piece of T20 history, the makers lose half the battle. Rohit Sharma’s team finished fifth, with no against-all-odds comebacks and cranky controversies, a year after they won their third title against Pune in a memorable final. The effort to dramatize is obvious, especially in the way the squad is profiled as young and immature in the wake of the reshuffling IPL auction. Almost every player – from Ishan Kishan to Aditya Tare, Jasprit Bumrah to Suryakumar Yadav, Mitchell McClenaghan to Evan Lewis – is afforded a mandatory background package, in the hope that at least one of these sub-threads will find a resolution that defines the team’s performance. Given how abruptly the show wraps up, though, you can sense that the makers were desperately praying for a happy ending without a Plan B up their sleeves.
In striving to depict the Mumbai Indians’ middling 2018 season as a monumental piece of T20 history, the makers lose half the battle
There is also too much impetus on the team’s campaign itself, where they start out by losing 5 of the first 6 games before staging somewhat of a signature revival. It might have been more useful to delve deeper into the psychological state of perhaps just a few key characters instead of half-heartedly committing to the whole bunch. Retired Sri Lankan legend Mahela Jayawardene, now the Mumbai Indians’ head coach, is ironically the only ‘character’ expressive enough to incite intrigue about the internal machinery of a significant sports tournament. Yet, the camera stops short of unravelling the man behind the manager, thus missing out on an opportunity to examine the mental constitution required by foreigners to traverse the highways of the two-month-long cricket carnival.
Even the most ardent IPL fans might agree that the novelty of “insider-ness” wears off after the first few episodes. It’s always hard to resist footage from boardrooms and hotel rooms, the obscenely lavish Antilia residence (a team-bonding session culminates in a treasure-hunt) and practice nets, team buses and airplanes. Who doesn’t like to see Rohit Sharma tucking into a buffet of curious-looking health food after failing to inspire his boys? But there is only so much backstage action one can appreciate before the fatigue of theatrical familiarity sets in. Soon, you begin to notice repetitive tropes – the Azad Maidan legacy, the “Mumbai: Mecca of Cricket” opening sequences, the academic journalist voices, the token player-introduction montages, the over-conscious family reactions (a player’s mother speaks to her son as if she were narrating to us a voiceover about his aspirations). And most of all, the stock cricket-is-a-religion spectator shots, in which a sense of exoticism (the makers are not Indian) seeps into the way we see the same cross-section of fans – three boys tuning into their phone screens on Marine Drive, a tailor-shop veteran, office guys at a pub – react to all the Mumbai Indians games.
These formulaic constructions of suspense further suggest that there is no variety, no organic allowances, to the tone of the series. Much of it seems too designed to reveal how cricket – or even a cash-rich domestic T20 tournament – moulds the routines of a city that prides itself on impenetrable rhythm. Mumbai and Indians go hand in hand, after all. If only the team had played along with this myth.