It’s tough. How do you make the machinations of Indian cricket look even more ridiculous and murky than they already are? It’s like trying to amplify a deafening scream. Either you die a fact-flaunting documentary, or you live long enough to become an Inside Edge. With its third ten-episode season in four years, Inside Edge continues its run as a glorified blind item, where every other scene, plotline and character is a campy echo of the real world. It used to be fun, a spot-the-gossip drinking game with a dollop of B-movie kitsch thrown in: Richa Chadha is Preity Zinta? Aamir Bashir is N. Srinivasan? An evil, BDSM-loving Vivek Oberoi is Lalit Modi? An IPL (or PPL, in this universe) coach being bumped off is a shadowy nod to Bob Woolmer? Tanuj Virwani is a love-child of Yuvraj Singh and Virat Kohli?
The makers of the show clearly knew enough – and more – to tease the morbid curiosity of the average cricket fanatic. The on-field action was incidental; the backroom politics were the actual sport, like a so-bad-it’s-good Succession parody where every person plays an over-the-top extension of an emotion. The purpose was always to design a based-on-true-rumours universe too flimsy to invite scrutiny from the BCCI or the government (same difference); the slightest foray into tonal realism – and cinematic quality – could be injurious to health.
But now it’s all too much. Somewhere along the way, the fear of defamatory suits might have triggered a fear of sense. Even the drama feels incidental. Spurred on by the popularity of previous seasons, Inside Edge Season 3 is consumed by its obsession to disguise storytelling as crass entertainment – anywhere, anyhow, at any cost. Not a scene pretends to be sober, not a facial muscle remains unused. I wish I could say this one “takes off from the end of Season 2,” but the truth is that the narrative stays enslaved by the old permutation-and-combination syndrome: “bigger” is the formula, “better” is an illusion. While the first two seasons fetishized the IPL universe and its many corrupt movers and shakers, the third dips its pedicured toes in the waters of international cricket. The three main puppeteers – ICB chief Patil (Bashir), actress and PPL team owner Zarina Malik (Chadha) and omnipresent powerplayer Vikrant Dhawan (Oberoi) – continue their game of musical chairs. Zarina and Vikrant crossed swords in the first, Zarina joined forces with Patil in the second to destroy Vikrant, and now Zarina and Vikrant have merged to destroy Patil.
If that sounds confusing, don’t bother. The bottom line is that Vikrant Dhawan is still the human embodiment of a devious Cheshire cat who keeps showing up unannounced in private spaces: the backseat of a car, a board meeting, a bedroom, an office, a restroom, the bottom of a swimming pool. That last one may or may not be true, but the running joke of Vikrant simply waltzing into any frame with a seductive offer is running no more. (I was worried Vikrant would show up in my bathroom and strike a deal for a favourable review). Oberoi’s hamming puts Al Pacino and Jared Leto in House of Gucci to shame. Only, I don’t think this is deliberate. A twisted character is one thing; a twisted performance is totally another. When the acting itself is jarring, some face paint might have at least changed our perception of the character. Ditto for Vayu, still overplayed by Virwani, who dials up his aggression so steeply that the captain appears incapable of breathing without yelling and provoking the general air in his vicinity. At least Kohli only does that on the field; Vayu looks triggered even when he’s asleep.
The greediness of Inside Edge 3 – to riff on the India it occupies – is unparalleled this time. Not a track is spared. The backdrop (or foreground? Who knows?) is Pakistan’s tour of India for a three-match Test series. A nation is on edge. A hyperactive news anchor demands the clean-up of cricket. The bidding of the television rights is rigged by an insider. A pitch is dug up on the eve of a game. The right-wing Marathi politician behind the threat is seduced by Vikrant’s wife; in fact, every politician in the series is seduced by her. When all else fails, Vikrant sends her in to restore balance – but only when she isn’t dressing up as a dominatrix to choke Vikrant and remind him of a childhood in which he watched his parents having violent sex.
But we digress. An honest judge is in charge of a Lodha-style cleansing commission. A Muslim player is selected for the series by heritage rather than merit. A prominent Kashmiri leader is assassinated so that his cricketer son leaves the series midway and makes way for a compromised player ripe for spot-fixing. One character gets invested in the story of a disgraced ex-cricketer who died in a plane crash after being banned for match-fixing. A leading cricketer is actually gay. A coach is rotten. An ex-villain looks for redemption. Another character pushes for the legalization of betting. Zarina has flashbacks of her mother who was a junior artist in Bollywood. And on and on. So much is crammed into one season that the sound of Gautam Bhimani in the commentary box becomes a soothing one. The sport itself looks a little more convincing on screen compared to previous seasons (it’s Test cricket, of course), but then comes the sight of batsmen stumbling between the wickets and hopping into the crease like actors not used to wearing pads.
The problem with this season – or the show in general – is that every track feels like a tiny bullet point having an existential crisis. A single moment, if viewed without prior knowledge of Inside Edge, is enough to spell out the entire arc. I was watching a scene where a player named Rohit (the prolific Akshay Oberoi) is having an argument with his openly gay partner in a hotel room. Rohit is explaining why he’s kept his sexuality a secret so far, literally delivering a monologue about the equation between image and endorsements. My friend who’s visiting simply overheard the dialogue on screen and asked if the obvious conflict is even worth being stretched over ten episodes. Ditto for the track of team analyst Rohini (Sayani Gupta) trying to clear the name of a late family member, or the portrait of Patil losing control over the board in slow-motion. For a show that prides itself on absurd twists and veiled statements, the innate predictability of the ham is a deal breaker. The players having a food-fight during a meeting, or a coach trying to strangle a colleague during a match – the ball isn’t the only thing that crosses the line this time. Performances-wise, only Aamir Bashir seems to have gotten the memo. The others are pawns on a hopelessly black-and-white chessboard.
Even though the series does better than most in terms of cultural awareness – for instance, the way the Pakistani players behave, or the general camaraderie between the two teams – the bar is so low that the filming of the Indian national anthem before the final match without acknowledging the Pakistani counterpart stands out like a sore thumb. It doesn’t fit in with the otherwise-balanced rhetoric of a controversial sports series. Another issue is the entire females-will-rise template which – like Mirzapur 2 from the same producers – hinges on the absence of the women for huge chunks of the narrative. The intent is to depict a world in which men are too busy clashing to notice the women sneaking in with world-domination plans. While the women of Inside Edge 3 are far more interesting – and complex – than their male counterparts, their emergence looks way too convenient in a narrative that has nowhere else to go. Frankly, the least a self-consciously pulpy series does is compel the viewer to change their loyalties every other scene. Inside Edge 3 swerves so far away from the curve that, forget loyalties, neither Bollywood nor cricket royalty will feel threatened. Some may say that was the goal all along.