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A close match

Aditya Mani Jha | Updated on December 28, 2018 Published on December 28, 2018

Divine role: Shiv Pandit (left) plays Lord Shiva, offering cricketer Manju (Yash Dholye) sage advice and the occasional wisecrack in Selection Day   -  NETFLIX/VAIBHAV CHATURVEDI

A worthy adaptation of Aravind Adiga’s novel Selection Day on Netflix shifts pace adroitly, like some of the great all-rounders of the game

Cricket has always been bursting at the seams with rags-to-riches stories. This by itself is not surprising for a sport that requires so much infrastructure and capital (aerodynamic bats, pads, chest guards, little boxes to protect the family jewels). Especially in India, where the Indian Premier League (IPL) has converted an already cash-rich situation into a seemingly bottomless pit of money. Earlier this year, STAR won the telecast rights to Indian cricket for the next five years — the cost was an eye-popping ₹6,100 crore. And so we have well-meaning stories about boys from small towns or villages literally becoming millionaires overnight — Munaf Patel, the Pathan brothers, among others.

Netflix India’s latest original series, Selection Day (based on Aravind Adiga’s 2016 novel of the same name), at first glance seems to be a tragicomic commentary on this Great Indian Cricketing Dream, before gently unfurling its larger story and revealing itself to be a far subtler beast. Shifting roles, like some of the great all-rounders of the game, the show is, at various moments, a high-school comedy, a cautionary Mumbai fable, and an underdog sports drama in the vein of classics such as Miracle and Any Given Sunday.

Created by Marston Bloom (actor Anil Kapoor is one of the producers), the series — six episodes of 20-23 minutes each — was released yesterday.

Radha (Mohammad Samad from Tumbbad) and Manju (Yash Dholye) are brothers brought up by the soccer-dad-to-beat-all-soccer-dads — a petty, single-minded, violent man called Mohan Kumar (Rajesh Tailang from Mukkabaaz). We’re told that Mohan married a hockey champion from Karnataka specifically to produce athletic kids — he’s the sort of man who drops nuggets like these in casual conversation, with visible relish. It is implied that he beat up his wife, who then left for her mother’s place. His sons are afraid of him but have no real avenue to express their frustration. Friendless, they trudge in and out of their brutal, custom-made daily training routines. Even their long-term plans of emancipating themselves hinge on cricketing success.

The beating heart of the story is the way almost everybody — and not just Mohan — views Radha and Manju as resources rather than people. The once-famous cricket coach Kulkarni aka Tommy Sir (Mahesh Manjrekar) sees the brothers as the cricketing legends he always wanted to discover. Their principal Nellie Weinberg (Ratna Pathak Shah) sees them as vehicles for her school’s sporting revival, and a way to honour her late husband Max’s passion for cricket. Real estate jackal Anand Mehta (a character very different from his book counterpart, played by up-and-coming actor Akshay Oberoi) has ulterior motives of his own when he steps in to sponsor the brothers. The rich kid/school bully Javed (Karanvir Malhotra), who’s also the captain of the cricket team, views them as a distraction from his privileged, anodyne existence — until he and Manju strike up an unlikely friendship, one that forces the latter to confront suppressed truths about himself.

Shiv Pandit, in a cutesy experiment, plays Lord Shiva — or a pop art version of him, who speaks to Manju in a series of visions, offering sage advice and the occasional wisecrack. It’s unclear whether someone at Netflix made the let’s-get-Shiv-to-play-Shiva joke, but Pandit wears the role lightly — clearly having a lot of fun while at it.

The standout performance, however, comes from Manjrekar as Tommy Sir, once seen as the kingmaker of Mumbai cricket. Manjrekar’s weary dialogue delivery, his eye-bags and his air of wounded pride are inch-perfect for the role. We are shown how Tommy Sir turned his back on cricket and slipped into his new role as Art teacher, how he pulls the blinds in his classroom to stop students from watching a cricket game at the school ground.

Manjrekar brings gravitas to a cricketing tragedy that could just as easily have descended into self-harm and a never-ending series of drunken evenings. Bollywood, sadly, has tended to use Manjrekar the actor in hammy, over-the-top villainous roles (viewers of Marathi cinema know better). This, for me, is as good as we’ve ever seen the veteran director in front of the camera.

Not everything is immaculate, though — the real estate part feels a little underwritten, despite another solid performance by Oberoi. Some high school scenes are uncomfortably close to caricatures, and prompt eye-rolls. Overall, though, Selection Day is a worthy adaptation of a fine novel, especially wherever it diverges from its source material and forges its own path.

“What is an Indian, after all? Picture today’s young man from Mumbai or Delhi as a vulture above the nations, scavenging for his identity. He sees a pretty thing in Dubai, and he brings it home; he sees a pretty thing in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and he brings it home. One day he looks at his life, finds that it makes no sense at all, and then he turns to religion.”

In the novel, this is the passage where the Indian penchant for imitation is punctured — luckily, the show chooses not to follow any one television template, and thank god for that.

Aditya Mani Jha is a commissioning editor with Penguin Random House

Published on December 28, 2018
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