Selection Day review: Netflix’s latest Indian series, produced by Anil Kapoor, is the weakest member of the team
Director - Udayan Prasad
Cast - Mohd. Samad, Yash Dholye, Rajesh Tailang, Ratna Pathak Shah, Mahesh Manjrekar, Akshay Oberoi
Rating - 2/5
Udayan Prasad, director of Netflix’s latest Indian original series, Selection Day, made a statement recently that, in hindsight, explains everything that is wrong about the show. Prasad is an Indian born British filmmaker, who recounted a story about returning to India - specifically New Delhi - after several years being away, and expressed surprise at how the language had changed. This wasn’t the India he’d left behind, but it was certainly the India he wanted to understand, though this show.
He was taking a walk around the Lodhi Gardens – sprawling centuries-old lawns housed in what is perhaps the most expensive 5 square kilometres of real estate in the capital - and was shocked to learn that most people around him were speaking English. “I thought there was something seriously wrong here,” he said. “What the hell is going on? Why is everyone talking in English?The moment you leave the big cities and go into the villages, everything’s different.”
The small gathering of Indian journalists – including myself – to whom he was telling this story immediately grew concerned. Our English might not be as good as Stephen Fry’s, but we certainly speak it - as we have all our lives. But that is the trouble with Selection Day. It appears to have been made by a bunch of people who aren’t necessarily as familiar with modern India as they should be, and therefore unprepared to tell a story so rooted in its milieu.
Watch the Selection Day trailer here
An outsider’s perspective can be valuable on certain occasions - I particularly enjoyed Lion, directed by the Australian Garth Jennings - but in the case of Selection Day, a story that positively demands a Mumbai native’s voice, several key themes are lost in translation.
“The Slumdog (Millionaire) version is presented all the time outside,” said the man sitting beside Prasad at that press interaction. This was the show’s writer, Marston Bloom, who admitted that Danny Boyle’s Oscar-winning film contributed to the West’s understanding of the country - ‘that Indians are victims and terribly poor’
“Modern India has a lot more to say,” Bloom continued. “Maybe this (Selection Day) was a way of capturing it for me.”
Alas, the story he has written is one filled with many contrivances and coincidences. Were it not for the Hand of God – which is made manifest in the show quite literally – several of the storylines would come to a grinding halt. There are three plots in Selection Day, running in parallel. The first, and ostensibly the most important, is that of a couple of brothers – named Manju and Radha; it is unclear if this is meant to be a joke – who have been conditioned from birth by their father to become ‘the number one and number two batsmen in the world’. This training comes at the expense of a regular childhood, which means Manju and Radha are ‘home schooled’ and friendless.
The second storyline concerns a pot-smoking headmistress, played by Ratna Pathak Shah, who runs one of those hippie-dippie schools where there are no curriculums and kids are expected to express themselves through interpretive dance. Manju and Radha are spotted by the school’s cricket coach (played by Mahesh Manjrekar), who notices their undeniable talent, and despite their father’s obnoxiousness offers the kids a free ride at the school, named, curiously, after a Jewish fellow (this is Bombay, remember).
The school’s broke, and an upstart investor conveniently comes knocking on the headmistress’ door with the intention of buying her cricket field, which lies abandoned because Coach Tommy has sworn off the sport, until he spots Manju and Radha. There had to have been a more graceful way of setting the various plots into motion, perhaps with fewer jarring contrivances, but Bloom doesn’t find it.
Instead, he doubles down on the rapid-fire storytelling style, which almost gives the impression that you’ve missed a couple of episodes by mistake. There are interesting ideas in there, about class and perpetual servitude and the ‘curse of genius’, but all that is glossed over in the show’s 20-minute episodes – four out of six were made available for preview – that resemble a sitcom more than anything else.
Rajesh Tailang plays the kids’ father with absolutely no redeeming qualities. It hurts that he, in addition to being a self-proclaimed eccentric, is forced to speak either in grand proclamations or verse. His motivations are strictly selfish – one can imagine him dedicating his youth to cricketing dreams and failing spectacularly – and his perception of others changes on a dime – one moment he is falling at Coach Tommy’s feet and in the next, they are rolling around on the ground, fighting like schoolchildren.
Selection Day is surprisingly flat, considering the built-in interest that both cricket and cinema have in our country. No one should be disqualified from telling the story they want to, but that’s provided they bring a fresh voice to the table. Otherwise, you’re just exposing your personal biases and ignorance. What Slumdog Millionaire did so well, despite its obvious faults, was that it celebrated the spirit of a nation, in addition to forcing us to confront certain harsh realities about our country.
Selection Day can’t seem to decide whether it wants to be a thought-provoking fable or gritty poverty porn – tones that Slumdog was very successful at nailing. It has elements of magic realism – a deeply annoying trend that for some reason is associated mostly with south Asian storytelling – that feel rather out of place, especially because they’re used sporadically and usually without warning.
And in one of the show’s least noticeable but just as problematic creative decisions, a potential story arc about a same-sex relationship is approached with the hesitation one might experience before entering a nuclear fallout zone – this simply does not fly in 2018.
On paper Selection Day is Netflix’s third Indian original series of the year, but the truth is this: It’s written by a Britisher and directed by someone who doesn’t live in India, who until recently didn’t even know that we speak their language better than some of them. It’s a patronising insult.