A few minutes into the first episode of Netflix’s Indian original series Selection Day, a young Manju (Mohammad Samad) declares, “I don’t even like cricket.” This proclamation, which will repeated frequently, is an early sign that the show plans to trade the subtlety of Aravind Adiga’s source novel for open declarations and broad strokes.
Manju’s dislike for the sport forms the crux of Selection Day, a coming-of-age tale of two brothers whose athletic potential is milked by an authoritarian father whose sole ambition is to turn his sons into cricket stars. Manju’s antipathy towards the game is immediately inferred, but not abjectly stated. That’s how it works best, because the young protagonist is the amalgamation of hundreds of repressed impulses, bursting and yet struggling to break out of the rules imposed by parents and society.
This failure to capture the searing but bottled-up emotion of Adiga’s book is the chief shortcoming of the Selection Day adaptation, which is otherwise an easy-to-breeze-through and well-performed teenage sports drama. Desire and passion steer the original tale, which is framed as a countdown to the day when three players will be chosen for the Under-19 Mumbai cricket team.
Selection day looms large over the story, but is almost incidental to Manju, whose journey is defined by his relationships – with his older brother, Radha, father and most of all, Javed Ansari, a confident cricketer and classmate who touches Manju’s life in profound ways.
That other core of the book – the unrealised passion between Manju and Javed, which unfolds through covert stares and overt hostility before blossoming into a tumultuous friendship – is also merely teased in the first season. A second season is desperately needed to tap into what made Adiga’s book so unique as a sports drama with a homoerotic undertone.
The Netflix series, directed by British-Indian filmmaker Udayan Prasad (My Son the Fanatic), opens with Manju and Radha (Yash Dholye) being transported from their Madhya Pradesh village to Mumbai, where their father and manager (Rajesh Tailang) wants to set them on the path to becoming the next big names in cricket. Their destinations are pre-determined: Radha is to be champion No. 1 and Manju No. 2, a hierarchy that circumscribes their ambitions. When celebrated coach Tommy sir (Mahesh Manjrekar) spots the two boys in action, he takes them under his wing and gets them enrolled into the Ali Weinberg Academy, where they will get free education and cricket training.
Manju would rather trade his bat for a lab coat, but is tied to the game by his father. He’s also haunted by his mother’s absence – she disappeared under mysterious circumstances before they left for Mumbai – and fears the worst for her, being all too familiar with his father’s violent and controlling ways.
The show throws in some drama in the form of a rapacious businessman who seeks to purchase the land on which the Academy’s cricket ground is built and talk about an indiscretion on Tommy Sir’s part. Another puzzling decision is the inclusion of a physical manifestation of Lord Subramanya, the deity before whom father Mohan Kumar obsequiously prays for his children’s future every day. Played by Shiv Pandit, the personification can be seen only by Manju and appears before him every time he faces a challenge on the pitch. Was the choice made to lend an air of mysticism to the show, a mistaken concept of an Indian flavour? Adiga’s Manju is a man of science as well superstition, but it isn’t religion as much as his own quirks that he resorts to in his hour of vulnerability.
The dialogue is unnatural in parts, having been written in English by Marston Bloom and translated into Hindi and Marathi. The cultural disconnect is most clear in the lines that are actually spoken in English, which lack the necessary colloquial flourish.
The problem is not that the show makes departures from the book, but that it introduces sub-plots that don’t seem to add any value to the story. Selection Day works best when it sticks to the journeys of Manju and Radha and is most captivating in the stray interactions between Manju and Javed (Karanvir Malhotra). One welcome addition from the novel, however, is the fleshing out of the boys’ time at Weinberg. Though a distraction from the main plot, this helps develop their characters and sheds more light on the cloistered nature of the world built for them by their father.
Mohammad Samad is charming on screen, and Rajesh Tailang is perfect as the merciless father who would be scary if he wasn’t quite so foolish. Ratna Pathak Shah is somewhat wasted as the pothead school principal, a character created perhaps to fill in the lack of women in Adiga’s book and add an illustrious name to the cast.
Ultimately, the six-episode first season of Selection Day is far too short to do more than ready the pitch for the story to follow.