Slick but strictly sensational

It appears that Pahlaj Nihalani’s eccentric conservatism is breeding an opposite madness. A strange belief seems to be gaining ground – that the addition of sex scenes and casual swearing immediately elevates cinematic source material, however awful, to an authentic modernity that Nihalani is against. We’ve seen it in myriad web series, occasional films, and most prominently in Ekta Kapoor’s recently launched ALT Balaji shows.

Consider Karan Anshuman’s Inside Edge, the first Amazon Original created for India, whose ten episodes were simultaneously released online last week. The first episode starts with a terribly staged sex scene that ends on an even more ridiculous note. A swashbuckling cricketer called Vayu Raghavan has sex with a cheerleader while waiting for his turn to bat. When that moment finally comes, he quickly finishes, and rushes out to the ground while spurning a helmet. “I don’t use protection”, he says, while the cheerleader swears at him in the background.

Behind the scenes

Inside Edge promises to unveil the game behind the game of cricket – a national madness, pastime, and provider of great wealth and stardom to its popular faces, right from the players to its officials. Written against the backdrop of the Mumbai Mavericks team playing in the fictional Power Play League (PPL) – a barely veiled emulation of the IPL – the show focuses on the mechanics of spot-fixing, and the machinations that run a thriving betting industry.

The potential for a fascinating story is clear. But superfluous, barely believable gimmicks test the viewer’s patience, and determine whether one finds an early fascination or disdain for the show. More so because engendering belief in its characters or story doesn’t always appear to be high on the list of priorities for the show. The worst culprit is Vivek Oberoi, who plays Vikrant Dhawan – machinator-in-chief, controller of destinies, and owner of a mysterious source of wealth and power.

Oberoi’s Dhawan is a cartoonish caricature of monstrous proportions who mostly speaks in English, flies a private plane, eats imported Wagyu beef, and has the inclinations of a rapist. He also spouts lines like “Open wide, princess” while thrusting a forkful of beef down an actress’s throat. Not to forget, in his private time he relaxes in an oxygenation chamber while inhaling a Chemical X.

Language quibbles

The most surprising aspect of the show is its reliance on English as its primary language. More so, because there are no Hindi subtitles to go alongside. The choice of English in itself isn’t a problem in theory, but sounds completely out of place when mouthed by certain actors. Richa Chadha, usually a reliable and entertaining performer, is criminally wasted. Her articulation in English isn’t even a patch on what she can achieve in Hindi. (A nifty Amazon feature called X-Ray, that occasionally offers trivia and actor names, informs us that this is Chadha’s first role that requires her to speak in English. The lack of comfort with the language is telling.)

Moreover, there were two even better reasons to stick with Hindi. First, while the English dialogues are largely flat and bookish (“It’s all part of the plan; every plan needs a fall guy”), the Hindi dialogues, when they arrive, are immediately more colourful, not least because they appear in various dialects. Second, it’s arguable that a large number of cricket-lovers in smaller towns of India, especially the Hindi-speaking hinterland will find it difficult to enjoy or follow a show that appears to be about the English-speaking elite.

Ironically, the three star performers of the show are all staunch Hindi speakers grappling with an ostensibly elite, English-speaking world. The criminally under-used Manu Rishi shines as Manohar Lal Handa, the scheming owner of the rival team Haryana Hurricanes. He plays Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony to his crops, and even does his sex scenes better than the flamboyant Vayu Raghavan (Tanuj Virwani), the token bad boy and cricketing genius rolled in one. The second star is Siddhant Chaturvedi who plays Prashant Kanaujia, a low-caste cricketer from Uttar Pradesh whose loss of innocence is a cornerstone of the story. He is constantly undermined by the Brahmin from UP, the egregious and despicable Devender Mishra who is played with foul-mouthed elan by Amit Sial. It is these three characters who raise the show to a level of respectability that it would have otherwise struggled to gain.

Missed opportunity

The biggest disappointment of the show lies at its heart. In a Caravan magazine profile published a year after Lalit Modi was banished from the IPL by the BCCI, the journalist Samanth Subramanian wrote of Modi: “The charges hinted an entirely different sort of audacity, by which Modi handed out contracts to friends, negotiated terms on his own steam, accepted kickbacks on a broadcast deal, sold franchises to members of his family, and knew all about Mauritius-based shell companies holding stakes in teams – all under the very nose of the BCCI and of a media cavalcade that covered little else when the IPL was on”.

It is a pity that Inside Edge decided to ignore rich source material and made most of its characters largely one-note. Oberoi’s character, for instance, isn’t written to be even a fraction as colourful or complex as Modi. As a result, bogged down further by Oberoi’s incessant hamming, all that Oberoi does is show off the result of his machinations while mouthing inane lines and threatening less powerful people around him. We rarely ever see the complex machinery of cricket betting, always viewing the action from the top down, as those at the top of the food chain make incessant profits while running the show. For a cricket lover, there’s little new insight into a shady world of deal-making, corruption and vice.

To be fair, the show is well-packaged. It looks expensively mounted; some of the camera work by Sanjay Kapoor is magnificent; and the editing is slick. Most of the episodes make a brave attempt to carry the story forward. There are clever scenes as well. A shot of a man returning to smoking indicates the blurring of his ethical lines. Wine dropped on a carpet is evoked cruelly in blood in a later episode. There is a rush of adrenaline as a young fast bowler gets his first over in a competitive match. Raghavan’s refusal to use a condom comes back to haunt him unexpectedly. These, however, barely linger because the storyline always seems too easy – the rise of the bad guys, half a team being convinced to spot fix for profits, the ultimate realisation of a conscience in a player, and, finally, stiffing the bad guys by the end of the series. It’s all too neat, unoriginal, and anodyne.

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Printable version | Jan 25, 2022 8:42:01 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/slick-but-strictly-sensational/article19309300.ece

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