By Kanishkaa Balachandran/The Hindu
Bengaluru, April 6: Indian cricket had its rudest wake-up call in 2000 with the match-fixing allegations that ended the international careers of prominent players, including the former captain Mohammad Azharuddin. Many fans found it hard to reconcile with it and turned away from the game.
Over two decades later comes a new documentary on Netflix, Caught Out: Crime. Corruption. Cricket, which looks back at the era from the mid-90s to 2000. Documentary filmmaker Supriya Sobti Gupta, a former journalist who produced titles like Bad Boy Billionaires: India and Mumbai Mafia, tells this story from the point of view of the journalists and investigators who worked behind the scenes, who she describes as the “unsung heroes”.
In this interview, the debutant director talks about what motivated her to explore this topic after so many years, the strands in the match-fixing saga she wanted to focus on, the challenges faced in the production of this film, what drives her to pursue investigative themes, and more.
We are speaking nearly 23 years to the date when the Delhi police revealed their investigation into the match-fixing case. What made you choose to explore this topic now?
The ramifications of the 2000 match-fixing scandal are always going to be felt. Growing up in the 90s, you looked up to cricketers as heroes. I decided to make this film 20 years on because we know there was a dark period in the history of Indian cricket but we don’t know the inside workings of it.
This is similar to your other Netflix production ‘Bad Boy Billionaires: India’, where powerful people in positions of trust cheated the public. What drives you to pursue these investigative themes?
I’m a former journalist, and I find these stories quite interesting because they allow you to see your subjects from a human angle. I wanted to humanize the stories that we’re going to tell, whether it is of people in positions of power, who may have misused their positions, or cops or gangsters. .
We knew matches are fixed somewhere — there were murmurs — but there was no solid evidence. Some people stuck their necks out because they did something which was not necessarily palatable to us, the Indian public. Some journalists and stung players and people in the cricket administration. You can imagine how difficult it may have been to do something like this 20 years ago, for the Delhi police to say a foreign captain was involved. My form of journalism and storytelling is rooted in the craft of non-fiction, in order to tell extraordinary stories of ordinary people who had this burden on their shoulders of investigating something and have brought us the truth. Whether it’s the CBI, police officers, or journalists, I call them the unsung heroes.
Did you approach Mohammad Azharuddin, Manoj Prabhakar, and Kapil Dev to get them to appear in the film?
In the ‘90s, players were a lot more approachable. Now, if you want to do an interview with the cricketer, you’ve to go through their managers. Even if it is for something positive, there’s talk about how much money is on the table. Of course, I reached out to the players to get their points of view. There is an element of the right to reply. But unfortunately, they continue to maintain the conspiracy of silence, which is what the CBI said they did 20 years ago.
Was getting access — to players, certain journalists, bookies, real footage etc — one of your biggest challenges in this production?
Access is very important to non-fiction stories. They’re all based on the people that are willing to come on and contribute to your film. At the outset, I wanted the investigators to be the heroes of this film. But we’d never heard from the investigators what it was like for them to interview these big players. We told them that we’re going to be as close to the truth as possible, that it’s going to be very well balanced. If you put out one wrong thing, you’re going to get brickbats.
The non-fiction genre is not easy to tackle in India because here you’re still trying to create a market and build confidence in the art of documentary filmmaking. There’s a lot of mistrust especially when it revolves around issues of public interest, or human interest that involve people in positions of power.
The BCCI has several restrictions on the rights to use original footage. From a filmmaker’s perspective, what were some of the challenges you encountered there?
It was very difficult to get hold of archives from the BCCI because the rates are quite high. Forget our film, even for Sachin’s film it was difficult. We were able to collect incredible archive material from news agencies that we worked on for over a year.
It seems hard to condense the fixing saga into a film of under 2 hours. Did you plan to run this as a series with multiple episodes?
We always wanted this to be a feature documentary. Of course, you cannot tell the story of cricket in India in one film. We didn’t touch upon [cricket corruption in] Pakistan, but we were hell-bent on keeping the focus on the 2000 match-fixing scandal. With the trajectory of Indian cricket, there are too many turning points and too many milestones to explore. That would confuse the viewer. It’s not a documentary that is investigative in nature. It’s one that speaks the truth and is meant to be entertaining along the way. You’re reaching out to a global audience through Netflix, and we wanted to make sure there is some trail and journey that we take our viewers on while telling them about a specific incident in Indian cricket.
Other cricketers who got lesser bans than Azharuddin and Ajay Sharma were not covered in the film. Any reason for that?
I reached out to everybody involved and named by the CBI in their report. But in the end, all their bans were overturned. Adding more names would complicate the matter. We wanted to end with the crux, which is match-fixing is still not a crime. It was after this scandal that the BCCI and the ICC both went on to install anti-corruption measures that were spearheaded by people like Ravi Sawani and Neeraj Kumar who worked closely with the BCCI.
If you go to Nayan Mongia or Prabhakar today, they will refute everything [in reference to an ODI against West Indies in 1994 where they didn’t go for the win]. These were theories, but not really proven. When you have a CBI officer saying he had evidence, you’ve got to believe that it’s the gospel truth. We could have made this very sensational with a lot of things that were said about Azhar, or even made it about his wife. We wanted to stay true to the subject we were on.
Did you consider bringing in bookie Sanjeev Chawla, a big name in the Hansie Cronje investigation, into the film?
We did explore that angle as well. But that would not be relevant to our film because that’s more about the Hansie Cronje case. Moreover, we would have then had to explore the angle of where Sanjeev Chawla is and what’s up with this [extradition] case. The reason why we also added Hansie to the film is that he was such a key part of this whole puzzle. Had he not been part of the King Commission inquiry in South Africa, we would have never known about [bookie] MK Gupta, or even Azhar.
In 2013, the IPL was hit by spot-fixing allegations that involved players being arrested. Any plans to explore that as a separate series?
Not at the moment. We’re happy that people are receptive to this. There is a lot of nostalgia about 2000, but what happened in 2013 seems like yesterday. It’s something that’s often referred to and made an example of with every subsequent IPL season.
A lot of people say there is nothing new in our film. But tell me, having watched cricket in the ‘90s, can you remember every little detail of what you saw in the film? When I started researching, I remembered some details very faintly. There was no proliferation of news like there is now. The CBI remains a very covert organization, and what’s happening inside the CBI headquarters wasn’t widely covered. I don’t think 2013 would elicit the same sense of nostalgia because 2000 was the turning point in the history of cricket for India, possibly even the world.
(Caught Out is currently streaming on Netflix)