It is quite befitting that the latest Netflix Original to come out of India is one with the game of cricket as its centrepiece. After all, ours is a nation that considers cricket its religion and cricketers as God. But alas, our religion is essentially flawed and our Gods have feet made of clay. And Selection Day slams home this truth with deafening irrevocability.
Selection Day is the latest Indian original series from the Netflix stables. And as the title suggests, it pertains to the crucial selection day in cricket, when destinies are made or marred by the second-most important entities in cricket after the all-important players – the cricket selectors. Based on the eponymous novel by Booker prize winning author, Aravind Adiga, Selection Day is an intriguing tale of two youngsters who have been groomed by their overbearing father from the cradle itself to become the best batsmen in the world. The series has been produced by Anil Kapoor and Anand Tucker.
Radha Kumar (Yash Dholye) and Manju Nath (Mohammad Samad) are the brothers who have been brought up by their father, Mohan Kumar (Rajesh Tailang), with a singular mission and purpose in life – to become the world’s leading batsmen. Mohan even addresses his sons likewise – the older Radha is called Champion No. 1 and younger sibling, Manju, is Champion No. 2. The story begins in the cricket ground of a small town of Madhya Pradesh, where both brothers smash brilliant innings to show their audiences a glimpse of their talent. The scene quickly shifts to Mumbai, the Mecca of cricket, where the rest of the story plays out.
The series presents a fascinating smorgasbord of characters, with quirks that are not quite so fascinating.
First among them is Mohan, the boys’ father. Mohan’s obsession with producing world champion progeny began much before his sons were born – apparently, as revealed by him, he had married a star hockey player so that she could bear him athletic sons. The extent to which a man can be dictatorial and domineering is evidenced by Mohan’s character. He bullies and terrifies his sons into harbouring the same cricketing ambitions as he has for them. He doesn’t let them study, play or do anything that would distract them from cricket. His manic obsession is made all the more affecting by the fact that Manju hates cricket – he only plays it to pacify his authoritarian father. Manju, in actuality, wants to study the sciences and become a scientist.
Mohan is suggested to be a wife-beater too, though we never actually see him beating the boys’mother. It is only suggested by the tiny hints that the very-sensitive Manju latches onto – broken bangles in the corner, blood on the wall, a forlornly lying hair scrunchy, and so on. The mother is conspicuous by her absence and we fear the worst for her. On Manju’s persistent questioning, Mohan tells him that she’s gone to her mom’s place and will return in a few days.
In the meantime, he whisks the boys to Mumbai, to realize his long-cherished ambition. Selection Day is several months away, and he has to get his world-beating sons into a Mumbai cricket club before that, so that they can be spotted by talent scouts and recruited into the Mumbai Under-16 team. There are only three spots available for budding cricketers, and of course, his sons must grab two. A relative puts him up in a dingy chawl room in Sewree. Mohan solicits clubs by the twenties to give a chance to his sons, but to no avail. Bushed, but not beaten, the trio reaches the haven of Mumbai cricket – Shivaji Park, where Sachin Tendulkar too had cut his cricketing teeth. It is here that Tommy Sir (Mahesh Manjrekar), a world-renowned coach, notices the boys’ talent and takes them under his wing. Tommy Sir is fighting the demons of an objectionable past, and sees in the boys, a chance to redeem himself and the dying Max Weinberg Cricket Academy, a cricketing academy run by Nellie Weinberg (Ratna Pathak Shah) in memory of her husband, Max.
Mohan is persuaded to admit his sons into the Weinberg school on a cricket scholarship, so that they can train regularly and play the Harris Shield – the Mumbai interschool cricket trophy, and a favourite hunting ground for talent scouts. The brothers have numerous run-ins with Javed Ansari (Karanvir Malhotra), a rich upstart and captain of the school cricket team. Javed rags them mercilessly on their small-town ways and obsession with cricket.
In a not-so-pleasant sub-plot that runs parallel to the main plot, we have a flop entrepreneur, Anand Mehta (Akshay Oberoi), whose harebrained business schemes have rendered him bankrupt. His only hope for redemption is the cricket ground of the Max Weinberg Cricket Academy. He hopes to build tall residential towers on the ground and sell the flats at a killing. But Nellie is adamant about not selling out to him.
In an inspired move, after having seen Radha’s and Manju’s talent for himself, Anand drops his idea of buying the cricket field and cuts a deal with Mohan instead. He agrees to sponsor their stay and cricket training, in lieu of a 33% share of the boys’ earnings when they’ve made it big. The IPL is mentioned in passing as the boys’ ticket to cricketing riches.
Nothing drives home the sordid commercialization of the Gentleman’s game as forcefully as ‘the deal’ does. Mohan has, in effect, sold his sons to the entrepreneur, as a derisive Manju tells his brother. Rajesh Tailang nails Mohan’s part superbly, getting across the shrewd, scheming mentality of the character with effortless perfection. He makes us despise the boys’ father with all our heart, effectively achieving what he’s required to do.
The brothers are poles apart. While Radha is aggressive, Manju is quite passive. Radha has made his father’s ambition his own, and looks forward to the day when he will snare a place in Mumbai’s playing eleven. He is also given to boastfulness and arrogance. His run-ins with Javed quickly turn into full-blown rivalry. Radha is also mean and manipulative. Despite being partners at the crease, Radha gets Javed run out on purpose when he realizes that Javed is set to break his record of the fastest Harris Shield ton. He is curiously unconcerned about his mother’s fate, a fact that shows the insensitive side of him.
Manju, on the other hand, is sensitive, magnanimous and considerate. He loves science with a passion. He constantly worries for his mother and stands up to his father several times, receiving beatings in return. Mohammad Samad is incandescent in the role of Manju. He has a flair for acting that will definitely take him places in the future. Samad first made critics and viewers sit up and take notice of him in the seminal horror movie, Tumbbad. His nuanced performance in Selection Day goes a step further in cementing his place as a rising talent in the entertainment world.
Ratna Pathak Shah is superb as Nellie. She is the one cheerful spot in the dismal plot. Nellie Weinberg’s character is sprightly and sunny, lending brightness to an otherwise depressing scenario.
Yes, Selection Day is definitely depressing. It pulls us into feeling for the boys’ dreary reality, for the loss of their childhoods, for their being mere pawns in their father’s grandiose scheme. You hope with all your heart that they succeed at what they’ve set out to do, if only to bring some joy into their otherwise tedious existence.
The brothers have a secret pact between them, hidden from their callous father – Manju will help Radha get selected into the Mumbai team, while Radha will return the favour by ensuring that Manju gets to study science. Future seasons will tell us whether their dreams will materialise or come to nought.
Oh, and one more thing. In an inexplicable sub-plot, the reigning deity at Mohan Kumar’s home, Lord Subramania (Shiv Pandit), keeps appearing before Manju, to deliver bizarre monologues on heavy-duty concepts such as matter, gravity and black holes. The nattily-dressed, English-speaking Lord is a striking aberration in the proceedings, leaving the viewer stumped with confusion as to the need of his presence in the story. Oh ye writers of the show, pray enlighten us on this, won’t you?
There’s also a gay romance brewing on the side-lines. We won’t disclose between whom, though. That’s for you, the viewer, to find out.
The show suffers for a conspicuous lack of flourish and fine-tuning. Radha speaks with a typical Marathi twang, even though he’s shown to be from small-town Madhya Pradesh. We think the director and Yash could have worked harder to eliminate this discrepancy that sticks out like a sore thumb each time Radha opens his mouth, which is quite a lot. He’s the verbose one between the two brothers.
Mohan Kumar’s character lacks depth and dimension, despite hogging screen time. It lacks layers, nuances, shades – anything that would redeem the severity of this character.
In fact, most characters in the story suffer from this insufficiency. Radha, Anand Mehta, Tommy Sir, all these characters lack depth and nuance. We struggle to decipher what makes them tick or what lurks behind their one-dimensional façade. But maybe that’s to be expected, given the short 20-25 minute runtime of each episode. The short span leaves no scope for the makers to flesh out each character to its maximum potential.
All said and done, Director Udayan Prasad and Writer Marston Bloom have spun an interesting yarn, albeit, with considerable room for improvement. Though not brilliant, Selection Day is definitely worth a watch. Season 1 ends at an interesting turn of events. Let’s see how the series unravels in subsequent seasons.
IWMBuzz’s rating for Selection Day would be 3/5.
(Written by Rashmi Paharia)