Director: Udayan Prasad
Cast: Mohammad Samad, Yash Dholye, Rajesh Tailang, Mahesh Manjrekar, Karanvir Malhotra, Ratna Pathak Shah, Shiv Pandit
Streaming on: Netflix
In India, cricket unites and religion divides. In Selection Day, the pairing of cricket and religion is demonstrated with the subtlety of, well, a religious sport: A Hindu deity that a domineering father regularly worships for the success of his cricketer sons actually materializes on the field in a hippy human avatar when one of them is batting. Divine therapy. God is literally on the pitch…and not figuratively, like most Indians believed he was between 1989 and 2013. The strangely dressed man discusses Science and individuality with the boy in stilted, textbook English – the kind of non-colloquial, unnatural tone that most outsiders imagine Indians speak in, and the kind of language ‘cross-cultural’ hits like Slumdog Millionaire, Life of Pi and Lion thrive on. The boy, Manju (Tummbad’s talented Mohammad Samad), and his brother, Radha (Yash Dholye), are from Madhya Pradesh, but possess markedly different Hindi accents, too; the brash athlete has the rough-hewn rural twang, while the gentle academic speaks like a city boy made to act like a small-town immigrant.
Thanks to subtitles, non-Indian audiences might never know the difference, just like how we aren’t in a position to allow the linguistic nuances of Mexico’s different regions/classes in Narcos to affect our viewing experience. The globalization of content by streaming platforms has many upsides, but it’s this jarring downside – the narrowing chasm between rootedness and perception – that India’s third Netflix Original embraces. The rootedness of sport, the perception of religion; the rootedness of craft, the perception of art.
There’s something about Selection Day so basic, so vehemently simplified, that it’s both disheartening and unsurprising to recognize that the show has likely been broad-brushed to access international viewers. Adapted from Aravind Adiga’s novel, the first season comprises of six 20-minute episodes – a sitcom-style duration that forces the series to resemble a scrambled T20 game instead of a slow-burning Test match. The series revolves around the two boys, who have been molded into reluctant batting machines by a Ronit-Roy-level father (Rajesh Tailang) in anticipation of ‘Selection Day’ (trials) for the Mumbai U-19 team. He addresses them as “Champion no. 1” and “Champion no. 2,” and goes around daring strangers to bowl out the “duniya ke sabse best batsmen” in order to attract a cricket club. The show internalizes his monotonous personality: the famed Mumbai maidaan culture is compromised to accommodate the grandness of his obsession, a legendary ex-coach named Tommy Sir (Mahesh Manjrekar) admits them into the Weinberg Academy (a school that seems to exist in the Karan Johar vocational universe), an Ivy-league-preppie-styled rival batsman named Javed mocks them like he’s watched too many ‘80s movies, and the narrative of a hustling real-estate entrepreneur (Akshay Oberoi) in pursuit of the school’s land collides with what can vaguely be described as the Prithvi Shaw origin story.
The premise is intriguing, but the dialogues are ordinary, as if they were written to suit the English subtitles rather than vice versa. The cricketing action is shot typically. The technique-oriented moments are framed as close-ups, but it’s the non-batting skills – the bowling, fielding, and especially the running between the wickets – that expose the temporary ‘staging’ of the action. The scenes are bereft of texture, and the performances, in Indian wicketkeeper Rishabh Pant’s words, “only talking talking”.
Director Udayan Prasad and writer Marston Bloom, both Indian-born British storytellers, present a vision that is erroneously convinced of its own sociocultural understanding
That being said, I suspect that the first season barely touches upon the meat of the universe. All we have been given so far is a bunch of characters that can be described in one-word emotions. With four months to the trials, there is some promise in the direction of certain sub-plots – though, again, much of this is down to the original source material. The craft is such that it compels me to pick up the book and maybe get a sense of what it could have been – a reaction that is perhaps the most self-defeating sign for a paper-to-screen adaptation.
The ‘Western gaze’ isn’t a bad thing when it’s curious. You tend to see little details and observations that are often invisible to the trained eye. Here, however, director Udayan Prasad and writer Marston Bloom, both Indian-born British storytellers, present a vision that is erroneously convinced of its own sociocultural understanding. There is no effort to dig beyond the names and smell the sweat-stained syllables. The modest locations, too, are treated with an air of exoticness, and many secondary faces – a greedy relative (“This is Mumbai,” he repeats, in various tones of caution), a snooty townie with a pedigreed dog, a street-smart fruit peddler, a posh girlfriend – turn into lazy NRI stereotypes. The writing, as is evident, is derived directly from Bollywood movies rather than the lives that inspire those Bollywood movies. Netflix makers might argue that the syntax is irrelevant in context of soaring-underdog templates. That hardship and passion has a universal language. But generalize them enough by omitting crucial letters, and all we are really left with is “hard pass”.