Documentaries produced by Netflix India are prone to sacrificing depth at the altar of sensationalism. Caught Out: Crime. Corruption. Cricket is cut from the same cloth.
Last Updated: 07.50 AM, Mar 20, 2023
This is #CriticalMargin, where Ishita Sengupta gets contemplative about new Hindi films and shows.
NETFLIX INDIA has a documentary problem. Given that it has been only a few days since the streaming giant-backed docu short The Elephant Whisperers won an Oscar, the irony of making such a claim is not lost on me. However, I would say that the inclusion of Kartiki Gonsalves’ Tamil-language short in the platform is an anomaly and not the norm. A closer look at its roster, comprising mostly true crime outings, financial exposés and homegrown archives of artists, underscores the point. Notwithstanding the disparate thematic excursions, documentaries produced by Netflix India are prone to sacrificing depth at the altar of sensationalism. The recent addition to the list, Caught Out: Crime. Corruption. Cricket is cut from the same cloth. More worryingly, it is an instance of abject indolence in documentary filmmaking at a time when India is housing some of the most compelling independent voices.
Directed by Supriya Sobti Gupta, Caught Out: Crime. Corruption. Cricket is based on the late 1990s scandal of betting and match fixing that plagued the world of cricket, robbing much of its integrity and fandom. The incidents were widely reported and the nature of the discourse entailed that most of the narrative inflections are in the public domain. The chronology is something like this: In the year 2000 when cricket was thriving as the gentlemen’s game, Delhi Police chanced upon a conversation between bookie Sanjeev Chawla and former South African skipper Hansie Cronje leading to them filing a case against the latter on April 7.
The late player denied any involvement only to later confess to Ali Bacher, a former South African player and official of the United Cricket Board of South Africa, that he received something around $10,000 and $15,000 to forecast results of matches. This resulted in the sports ministry of India approaching the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to conduct a probe on the national players as by then doubts were already cast by cricketer Manoj Prabhakar, who said in an interview with Outlook India that he was offered money by none other than Kapil Dev in 1994 to compromise his game against Pakistan in the Singer Series in Sri Lanka. The findings of the CBI made a dent in the sacrosanct premise of Indian cricket, thwarting the sentiments of the people.
Like any great betrayal, there are two parties involved — those who caused the injury and those who suffered. Caught Out leans on focussing on those who located the problem — the journalists. Sharda Ugra makes an appearance, as does Sriram Karri. More crucially, Aniruddha Bahal, the then Outlook investigative journalist who had interviewed Prabhakar and in a way was the first to ring the alarm bells, is extensively present. Along with them, Minty Tejpal, one of the co-founders of the now defunct news website Tehelka, lends his presence.Tejpal and Bahal had conducted the first-of-its-kind sting operations on cricketers and management with hidden cameras to uncover the truth about match fixing, Footage from their work, Fallen Heroes, was consulted by the CBI in their probe.
The irony here is that for a non-fiction made by a former journalist and which trains its lens on more from that tribe, Caught Out is bereft of any journalist rigour or investigative zeal. During its runtime of 77-minutes, the documentary only collates information which is already public, making no effort to delve deeper or even offer an alternate reading. There is nothing in the outing that we don’t know of. The CBI officials recount the surrender of bookie Mukesh Gupta, who turned out to be the clincher in the betting case, questioning him and the information he revealed. All of this has been widely documented. It then proceeds to draw a connection between match-fixing and the involvement of the underworld. But it only alludes to the relationship without making any analysis or exploration.
IN A SIMILAR VEIN, the documentary includes the mention of Kapil Dev in the racket after Prabhakar’s claim but the filmmaker makes zero effort to follow it through. She excludes his famous tearful press conference and halts only at his exoneration. In a way, the already unresolved detail becomes further minimised and sanitised in the retelling. For an investigative non-fiction preoccupied with revealing the feet of clay of demigods, Caught Out remains steadfastly devout in its warped reverence.
Even then, what accounts for the most baffling bit in Gupta’s debut is its dodgy adherence to truth. For one, it opens with focussing only on Cronje when in fact other South African players like Herschelle Gibbs and Nicky Boje were also charged by the Delhi Police for criminal conspiracy. This omission, or false fixation is telling of Caught Out’s intent of painting an incomplete and misleading picture, relying more on excess than on sincerity.
This comes together with astonishing clarity when in the later half of the outing, it provokes a reading that among the Indian cricketers, it was only the former captain Mohammad Azharuddin and Ajay Sharma (the alleged conduit between the then skipper and the bookies) who were involved in match-fixing. A quick Google search will tell you others like former cricketer Ajay Jadeja and India physio Ali Irani were also banned for five years. (In 2003, however, the Delhi Court overruled Jadeja’s ban; in 2009 the Andhra Pradesh high court lifted Azharuddin’s lifetime ban.)
In fact, the documentary dedicates a chunk of its time to Azharuddin, his extravagant lifestyle and his eventual fall. The shift in slant is telling of the implication it intended to make. One way of looking at this is Caught Out’s inherent laziness. The other way is to read the room and inspect the subtext. Given that times we are living where religious bigotry is rife even in sports, this reiteration of a Muslm cricketer selling his soul, and the nation, for money assumes the nature of propaganda. More so, when the chastisement of other players for a similar wrongdoing is known to all. This is a concern because even today — more so today— Muslim cricketers playing for the country are expected to prove their allegiance with every match. Mohammed Shami, India’s right-arm fast bowler, is routinely disparaged by Right Wing trolls. His performance is of interest because in the eyes of many, its crests and troughs speak more of his loyalty to the nation than his personal robustness.
Seen in this context, the existence of Caught Out feels agenda-driven. That it says even less than what we already know about a time that demands scrutiny, makes the documentary unnecessary. And that it comes at a time when independent non-fiction storytellers from India are having a moment in the sun, makes Caught Out an embarrassment.