How Abhishek Bachchan’s ‘commitment to honest storytelling’ helped ‘Sons of the Soil’

Abhishek Bachchan   | Photo Credit: Amazon Prime Video

The unknown has always fascinated us. It may be a reason why we find something as ordinary as behind-the-scenes operations of a sporting franchise interesting; it also helps that modern sports documentaries have adopted a fly-on-the-wall style filming that adds to the drama quotient.

Sons of the Soil (SOTS), produced by BBC Studios and currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video, is the latest entrant in this space. SOTS follows the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL) team Jaipur Pink Panthers (JPP), owned by actor Abhishek Bachchan, and the team’s journey during the 2019 PKL season, a year which saw the Panthers fail in their pursuit of achieving a playoff spot for a shot at the championship.

Directed by two time BAFTA-winning filmmaker, Alex Gale, the five-episode series captures the few highs and several lows of the Panthers. In an e-mail interview, Gale and the series’ executive producer, Neha Khurana, shed light on what went into making the gripping docu-series. Edited excerpts:

Alex Gale

Alex Gale   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The Jaipur Pink Panthers’ roller coaster season was fertile ground for drama. How was the experience like filming the team?

Alex Gale: The film crew went through the same emotions as the team after a win or a loss, it was hard not to get swept away in those moments — capturing individual character stories within hectic moments was always the biggest challenge.

The team must have started off camera conscious. Did it improve over the course?

AG: We had multiple cameras following the team. However, I tried as much as possible to keep crew size to a minimum in intimate areas such as the dressing room. I wanted to give us the best chance of letting the team react as they would if cameras were not around.

A still from ‘Sons of the Soil’

A still from ‘Sons of the Soil’   | Photo Credit: Amazon Prime Video

At first, many of the team were very shy but over time, they grew in confidence and having cameras around at breakfast, during training, in their hotel room or meetings became something they were comfortably accustomed to.

SOTS seems to mirror All or Nothing (Amazon Prime’s sports documentary franchise) in spirit. Does the latter’s success make it impossible to conceive or film a series in any other style?

Neha Khurana: All or Nothing is an extremely popular, honest and successful franchise. But most documentary series on team sports would have a similar narrative structure. What differentiates one from another is the story and culture of the sport, and the country it comes from. SOTS is much more than just following a sports team in a sports league. The journey of Kabaddi from soil to the mat makes it a culturally rich narrative.

Bunty Walia, Abhishek Bachchan and Amitabh Bachchan in a still from ‘Sons of the Soil’

Bunty Walia, Abhishek Bachchan and Amitabh Bachchan in a still from ‘Sons of the Soil’   | Photo Credit: Amazon Prime Video

The unfiltered commentary in SOTS is certainly a unique aspect. Was there any apprehension at all from the team about airing such intimate, raw thoughts?

AG: From the early development stage, I was clear with all stakeholders in the project that I wanted to authentically depict the life of the team, and that means capturing usually intimate thoughts, reactions, and emotions in the moment.

When I first met Abhishek [Bachchan], he was very supportive of this approach, perhaps surprisingly so, and I think his commitment to honest storytelling helps give the series a lot more depth. Whilst there were moments with the team where privacy is a necessity, our crew’s relationship with the players grew over the course of the season and they were more and more willing to open up on camera.

How important is humanising the subject/s being filmed in a sports documentary?

AG: Spending time with characters away from their ‘work’ gives us the opportunity to understand them more and what has shaped them as individuals, it gives the viewers a chance to connect more personally with them. I wanted to find a balance between giving the audience candid insight to the unseen inner workings of a professional team and exploring the personal circumstances that drive the main characters.

A still from ‘Sons of the Soil’

A still from ‘Sons of the Soil’   | Photo Credit: Amazon Prime Video

The series dives into the personal lives of the team’s captain, coach and a few players. Was it because their stories seemed more relatable?

AG: Of course, there is no opportunity to cast characters in un-scripted documentaries. You get what you are given, as they say.

We needed to tell the JPP story from multiple angles within the team and we chose those who would see the team through very different eyes. The owner: who is keen to support and restore success to his team, a pressurised coach, and a challenged captain. After spending a month filming with players during pre-season, certain individuals and their stories became clearer which helped us chose who to focus on. We were also mindful we wanted to explore the lives of players who hailed from contrasting parts of the country.

Will there be a Season two of SOTS?

NK: As a maker, I want to continue the journey, and see how they do in the next season but it is still too soon to say.

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Printable version | Feb 28, 2021 3:09:25 AM |

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