“AAP HI sochiye, sir. Ek gaon se aaye do bhai, Indian cricket ke stars bante hain. Aisi kahaniyon ke toh log bhuke hain,” explains Mohan Kumar (Rajesh Tailang) to a potential investor/sponsor, who is interested in his two teenaged cricketing prodigy sons. If only this was the story of the recent Netflix original Selection Day, based on the eponymous book by Arvind Adiga.
The show has the wings — the splendid ensemble cast and source material ensure that — but it fails to soar, and crash lands in spite of sporadic bursts of excellence. The six-episode first season, which was made available yesterday, begins with a clock in place — six months to selection day. In the race against this clock are the Kumar brothers, Manjunath and Radha, who have been trained for cricket greatness by their controlling father (Tailang) since the minute they were conceived. He even married a strong hockey player from Karnataka to ensure ‘strong, athletic genes’ and has monitored every aspect of their life — no friends, or ice creams. All this in the pursuit of the day when they will make their debut century at Lord’s.
The journey to Lord’s shall begin with the brothers being ‘selected’ for the Mumbai under-19 team. That’s a journey that uproots the family from their village Badona in Madhya Pradesh, and as all roads to cricket greatness are routed through Mumbai, they land in the bustling metropolis, and predictably land in a chawl. What follows is even more predictable, the discovery by an ace coach (Mahesh Manjrekar), scholarship to a posh Mumbai School and the eventual bullying attributed to newcomers.
The twist in the tale — the younger one, or ‘champion number two’, as he is addressed by his father, has zero aspirations to be a cricketer. “Mujhe toh cricket pasand bhi nahin hai,” is his constant refrain. Cricket is an interesting premise for a show that tries to explore themes like modern-day parenting, class differences, teenaged angst, aspirations and sexuality in equal measure. There’s a hint to domestic violence as well through the conspicuous absence of the mother figure.
It’s strange that one of the biggest obsessions of the nation has not got its due on the screen. We have had an Awaal Number (1990) where Aamir Khan is mentored by an ageing, but still dapper Dev Anand, then of course Lagaan raced to an Oscar nomination, and there was Jannat 1 and 2. Inside Edge tried to register in the web series domain, but failed. What Selection Day gets right, is the obsession of the sport in modern day India.
Right from Tailang searching for a strengthening herb in the local market for his sons, with a fancy pooch in tow, to Radha Kumar being given the first spot in the morning toilet line — he scored the fastest century in the Harris Shield Tournament; to Geeta, the coach’s wife, who is watching a cricket clip on her phone, even as she is being administered chemotherapy. We are a nation obsessed with the Gentleman’s game, and that’s captured well.
But what’s missing are the emotions, which make millions of Indians pray for Kohli’s umpteenth hundred. The same emotions that make us happy when Dhoni stumps a batsman. You don’t get the sweat and the pain that goes into playing any sport well, and here we are talking about the nation’s favourite pastime.
Radha and Manju could have been characters that narrate the tale of the times and mirrored the turbulence of teenage. They could have have depicted the highs and lows any teenager would witness — as outsiders, both in the posh school, and in Maharashtra as well, but they don’t as the writing gets sloppy. Manju, played well by Mohammad Samad, who was earlier seen in Tumbbad is the perfect demure, sensitive younger brother to the elder ambitious Radha (played by debutant Yash Dholye) who takes the life altering changes in his stride. But, sadly, their relationship is never given the bandwidth to evolve or grow.
Tailang, who is having a splendid year, is impressive in his obsessive, controlling father act. Manjrekar tries to be a sublime, mellow cricket coach but the potbelly somehow distracts and detracts from the narrative. Ratna Pathak Shah shines as Nellie, an eccentric, new-age principal we wish we had when in school. The season ends with both the brothers facing life altering situations. There are still 113 days to selection day, which we assume the second season will do full justice to.