Saturday, 31 December 2011

A Film on Cricket in India

There is a filmmaker who loves cricket, characters and cinema – not necessarily in that order. He has now decided to combine all three into a documentary which captures the national passion with throbbing eloquence. The product, with its current working title Beyond All Boundaries, is receiving the vital finishing touches.

"Cricket and the passion for it is the river that runs through India. Given how divided the country is along lines of language and region, not to mention class, cricket is pretty much the only thing that unites us. A farmer in Bihar and an engineer in Chennai feel equally passionate about only one thing – and that is the Indian cricket team," says Los Angeles-based independent film maker Sushrut Jain.

Jain chiselled his film-making skills by completing the graduate program in film making at the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts. In his final year of the MFA programme, for his thesis, he travelled to Mumbai to shoot a short film, Andheri, which ended up being showcased in more than 40 film festivals.

Sushrut has now followed it up with this documentary which captures the progress of India during the 2011 World Cup and in the process shows how much of a driving force the game is in the lives of Indian people.

What made him take on the venture?

Jain says that he grew up with the dream of becoming a fast bowler. He played cricket every day, with rubber ball and tennis ball in his building, and the authentic cricket ball cricket in his Juhu school ground. Eventually, realising the limits of his talent, he decided to focus on his studies. Years later, while living in the United States, news of the Indian cricket team was the umbilical chord that kept him attached to the mother country.

“Having already made Andheri in India, I knew that my first feature had to be equally authentic and meaningful. When the 2011 World Cup was approaching, I started thinking that someone should make a film to capture India and the passion for the country's favourite sport during this exciting period. Eventually I decided that that person had to be me.

“My cinematographer, Jeremy, was my classmate at the graduate cinema school. Like most Americans, he had no idea what cricket was until he joined me on this film. The rest of my crew were all Indians, a mix of recent film school graduates (from Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune and Whistling Woods) and Bollywood industry professionals. All of them joined me because of their love for cricket and their excitement about the idea of this film.”

The film is perhaps the first definitive documentary based on India’s successful World Cup journey of 2011. However, while cricket and the World Cup create the background for the film, it is also about human stories of hope and struggle.

Jain would not categorise it as a message film with social commentary produced through editorialising. Rather, it is designed to entertain and also speaks eloquently about the common man directly through the stories of the three real life characters whose stories are intertwined with and influenced by the action on the cricket field.

“We begin with the end of the 1983 World Cup win and once we've quickly highlighted the fact that going into 2011 we haven't won again, we are done with the cricket history part of the film. We quickly establish how huge cricket is in India via the use of interviews and vox populi and then set the stage for the World Cup and the national expectation this time around. After that we launch into the stories of our three characters one by one. We intertwine their stories with an eye on India's progress through the nine matches it played in this World Cup.”

The motley threesome  - The three characters are very ordinary people made exceptional through their connection with cricket. For all of them, cricket is a lifeline.

This raises some questions.

India is a country where there are many for whom a victory in a cricket match is more important than a successful relationship, for whom a Sachin Tendulkar hundred can actually act as an antidote for a loss of job. Among the millions of fans, what made him choose these three? Who are the three chosen ones?

The film maker has a treasury of rich memories of his association with these three and believes that they are unique in their own ways.

The first is Sudhir Kumar, the well-known super-fan who is a regular feature in the Indian stadiums, body and soul painted in tricolour.

“Sudhir Kumar is a one of a kind. The way he is portrayed on the news and his single mindedness leads people to think he is crazy. But he doesn't let that bother him as he pursues his passion to be the greatest cheerleader for Indian cricket. He believes that what he does makes a difference to the morale of the Indian team and you couldn't convince him otherwise. We became friends during the World Cup and he would often call me from his cell phone (easily the most expensive thing he owned) and tell me what happened in the last match. After the India-Australia quarter final he called me up excitedly from Ahmedabad and told me he had asked the Indian team manager to pray to the Ganesh idol inside the stadium before the match. He said that this idol had always been there, but no one in the team knew about it, which is why India had a bad record in the venue. The manager prayed as per Sudhir's request and India ended up winning. Sudhir was ecstatic as he told me the story.

“Sudhir once mentioned that he had a bank balance of Rs 3. Yet, he has never taken a penny from any of the cricketers. There are so many great Sudhir stories but you will have to wait for the film to see them. We could have made an entire film just about Sudhir.”
The next main character is Prithvi Shaw, a 12-year old phenomenon Mumbai cricketer who induces ripples of romantic reflections about another schoolboy cricketer who emerged in the late eighties.

“We heard about Prithvi from a local Mumbai cricket writer. When we researched him we found that he was one of the three most talked about young cricketers in the Mumbai scene. We got in touch with his father who allowed us to spend time with him. We met his coaches at MIG and elsewhere. We even talked to the local Mumbai politician who has been Prithvi's sponsor for the past couple of years.
“Prithvi grew comfortable with us quite quickly and we had a lot of fun speaking with him and watching him play. He is very down-to-earth and wasn't ruffled by a camera being around him all the time. He has already learnt to deal with the attention and maintain his focus on the cricket.”
And finally there is perhaps the most extraordinary choice – Akshaya Surwe, a girl cricketer from the slums of Dadar.

“Akshaya, in spite of being a girl, has drive and athleticism that is visible to anyone who sees her play at Shivaji Park. What drew me to her though was the spark in her eye and her love for the game. Despite living in a small one-room chawl with no electricity and having no one in the world but her mother, Akshaya was never deterred in her dream to become a cricketer. I grew up in Mumbai and I knew kids like her and we had instant rapport. I felt if her story and personality appealed to me so much then they would to others as well. We also talked a lot to her coach, Aparna Kambli, who believed in Akshaya's talent and did a lot to help her.”
The film traces the highs and lows of the lives of these three characters even as the World Cup marches along in the background and India advances towards the crown of the cricketing world. The camera follows Sudhir on his cycle tour from Bihar to Bangladesh to watch the Indian games. It captures the dilapidated living quarters where Akshaya washes clothes, heats rotis. Her cricket playing friend Kaikesha dons a burkha. At the same time the two collect the pictures of Indian cricketers, walk out in cricketing whites and drives elegantly down the ground.

It focuses on the wonder boy as he takes guard in the nets and shows a surprisingly mature head on tender shoulder.

There is further intrigue as India wins the World Cup, and the movie captures some critical moments of the lives of these three even as they take place. All through, it never seems that the camera intrudes in their lives – the characters remain refreshingly real and sometimes brutally honest. 

Although it deals with a colonial sport with limited global following, Sushrut believes that the film will have universal appeal.

“The Indian audience is naturally going to love this film because it will be the first authentic chronicle of their amazing World Cup win. They will also love it because they will find the three characters to be true and irresistible. I grew up in Mumbai playing cricket every day of my life and I know that if back then my friends and I had a film like this to watch we would have been ecstatic.

“We also believe that through the festival circuit (and possibly ESPN or HBO), American and European audiences will be able to watch this film. There is a demand in the West for truthful stories from India that are realistic without being depressing. A sports documentary is the perfect device to bridge the gap between India and the West, even if it is a sport they may not understand. The American sports fans I have shown the footage to are extremely eager to see the final product because sports fanaticism is something that crosses all boundaries.”
The film has been a true labour of love for Jain.

“We did this film purely based on our love for the sport and of India with no big backers. I raised funds from grassroots, put together a crew of young Indian Bombay film school kids, and we travelled all over the country following our characters and the World Cup.”

As in any noble venture, helping hands were lent along the way by many.

“My first Assistant Director and Line Producer, Ashwin Shetty, and my second AD, Ankit Dahake, worked day and night on what was a tremendously long and difficult shoot. Other people who went out of their way to help us were journalist Ayaz Memon, cricketer Balvinder Singh Sandhu and Theo Braganza – the owner of a 60-yr old cricket book shop in Dadar. The great part was Yuvraj Singh and Sourav Ganguly providing us great interviews. And finally, my friends in America, primarily Oana Poliac – our biggest investor – and my mother, who fed and cared for Jeremy and me for nearly four months.”
And how does the road ahead look once the 200 hours of footage is edited into a 90- minute feature?

“I hope to have the film play on Indian television starting sometime next summer. We are open to speaking with all the sports and cricket channels there, Neo, TEN, ESPN, Star etc. And even news channels like NDTV who might find a film about India's passion for cricket to be an irresistible programming choice."
“However, we do need the help of fans and investors to help us cross the finishing line. We need people to go to our film's website ( and make donations to help us finish this film. We have no big sponsors behind us and have done everything totally independently. This is a grassroots funded film and no donation/contribution is too small.”
For those interested, the website mentioned above includes a short trailer of the film. There is also an associated blog which captures some delightful anecdotes about the experiences during the filming.

There is plenty of material there to whet one's cricket loving appetite until the final product becomes available.

The short clip that is available for view clearly demonstrates something that Sushrut repeats:
"It is the kind of film that could only have happened in India."

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