Three tales from Indian cricket
A documentary on India's victory in the 2011 World Cup sounds like a bit of a cause for eye-rolling. Isn't a DVD already out? Hasn't every Indian player given teary interviews? Is it not too, er, late?
Beyond All Boundaries, though, is not a documentary about the 2011 World Cup. Here, two months of hyperventilation for Indian cricket fans becomes a mere backdrop to an engaging, often moving, often unsettling, story about Indian cricket.
Beyond All Boundaries takes a lingering look at several slices of the life of the average Indian cricket fan who loves his team, his stars, and at the heart of it, eventually the game. Woven through the tale of India's progress in the 2011 World Cup are three separate story arcs that speak of the roles cricket can play in the lives of ordinary Indians, for whom the game becomes a source of aspiration, desperation and devotion.
Of the three "characters", Sudhir Gautam is perhaps the best known. He is India's most recognisable fan, a rather strange, stick-thin man of unrecognisable age. He turns up at matches, his torso and face painted in the colours of the Indian flag, and "Tendulkar" and the number 10 on his back. His head is shaven, save for a bit in the shape of a map of India on top, and a straggly tail of hair at the nape of his neck. During the World Cup, he opted for a kooky crown - a cheap replica World Cup trophy. Regardless of how he looks, the film turns Gautam from an object of mirthful curiosity into a maverick kind of everyday man.
The second storyline belongs to Prithvi Shaw, a 12-year-old batting prodigy from one of Mumbai's distant suburbs, whose life and career are driven by the prototype sporting parent - a single father obsessed with turning his son into the next you know who. Shaw Jr has an appetite for the 10,000 hours, or double that if Dad so requires. He is regularly sent to bat against men four times his size. During a match played late into the night, we see these giants of the fielding team quick to gather around when Shaw is struck by the ball early in his innings.
Possibly the most unusual of the trio is Akshaya Surve, an 18-year-old girl trying out for the Mumbai Under-19 team. Cricket is the centre of her existence and a potential exit for her and her mother, trapped in a single room in one of Mumbai's many narrow bylanes. She has dropped out of her class twelve board exam and comes though in the documentary as a spunky tomboy, sparkling young woman, and cussed contender, willing to endure an injury through her selection trial.
These World Cup stories are effortlessly meshed together by Sushrut Jain, a Los Angeles-based producer-director of Indian origin. A PhD in Economics from Stanford, Jain chucked up the corporate life for the University of Southern California film school. Beyond All Boundaries is his first feature-length project.
The first copy of the film was burnt to disc on April 2 this year, the second anniversary of India's 2011 World Cup victory. It has since been primped, sent to the Dallas Film Festival and the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles, which Jain describes as the "biggest film festival of Indian cinema in the world right now", where it won both jury and audience awards in the Best Documentary Feature category.
The film is beautifully shot by an eight-man crew and was eventually culled from 200 hours of footage. It is full of unexpected diversions and glimpses of Indian cricket, whether it is a shot of a group of Akshaya and her friends cutting a cake to celebrate a team-mate's birthday on a pile of rocks by the sea in Mumbai. Or of Shaw cycling through busy traffic or riding pillion on his father's scooter, cricket kit strapped to the back. Or the tense faces of spectators watching the India v England game off a small TV in Bangalore.
Jain considers himself a feature-film-maker, "That's the sensibility we brought to this documentary. We were not just going to tell you facts and have talking heads doing interviews - we were going to make it cinematic," he said.
Cinematic it is. Clips from India's matches are scattered through the film, the Wankhede Stadium is seen lit up the night before the World Cup final - familiar all right but glittering a little more than usual with the expansive wide angle. There are talking heads both formal and informal, yet it is the stories of the three unexpected protagonists that the viewer wants to keep returning to, to see what else Indian cricket contains. Like Akshaya wanting to dance on hearing about her selection in the Mumbai Under-19s and dreaming of buying a new home for her mother in a glorious future. Or Prithvi watching a match on TV and dismissing his father's question about the batsman hitting the boundary. "Sachin?" he's half-told, half-asked. His negative, in reply, is that familiar Indian clicking noise, "tch". "Ambati… oopar cut," he corrects his father. ["That's Ambati Rayudu, playing the upper cut."]
Jain originally had wanted merely to take a vacation in his hometown, Mumbai, during the World Cup. "It just happened organically - I thought it would be so cool if there was a documentary with human stories around the World Cup. People said, 'Yeah, you should do it.' I kept having good luck at every step."
Of the three stories, two are centred around Mumbai. Budget constraints prevented Jain and his team from travelling around India too much. They lived out of Jain's mother's house, began 14-hour shooting days at 6am, finding and then following their protagonists.
In many ways, it is Gautam's travels around the World Cup that hold the narrative together. He talks about leaping the boundary at the Wankhede and racing onto the field after MS Dhoni's muscular six gave India the trophy. That Gautam was invited into the Indian dressing room is known. His hero, Tendulkar, hugged Gautam, enamel body paint and all, and said, "You look like you haven't eaten all day - go get some food."
The longest and most important piece of travel by Jain and his buddies came right at the end and produced the most astonishing footage. When the World Cup began, Gautam cycled to Kolkata, and after it ended, like he had promised, he returned to the city and cycled back home to Bihar. "I like to return along the same route from where I began," he says.
His bicycle was waiting for him where he had left it, in the safest place in Kolkata - Sourav Ganguly's house. Jain and his team have Gautam leaving the city early in the morning; we follow him as light breaks, going past the city's pre-dawn labour force, more than one of whom recognise him and call out congratulations.
At the border of Damodarpur there are many waiting on bicycles to escort him home, where there is a grand street reception - thousands on the street, people leaning over balconies and terraces - with TV stations interviewing him, the neighbourhood political boss acknowledging him, and Gautam both revelling in and shrinking from the attention.
Starting with a Kolkata sunrise and ending in a Bihari gathering of thousands, it is a stunning, riveting, unreal sequence that would seem mawkish in the movies - except, this was real.
It was shot off the back of an SUV. Gautam repeatedly refused Jain's offer to let him ride in the car rather than pedal his way to Bihar. Gautam told Jain there were people along the route to his village that he had always met on his many cricket journeys. They knew when he was returning from the World Cup, he said. If he showed up "one day earlier, they will know that I didn't cycle and that's not good".
"We were basically sitting there, my crew and I, going at basically 20 miles an hour through India," Jain laughs.
Despite financial crunches, the film came together in the end. The post-production funding came from film-school friends, old contacts, relatives. The music was done by the American-German team behind Pirates of the Caribbean, who didn't know cricket but liked the story enough to work "for almost nothing". The documentary voiceover belongs to LA-based television actor and cricket fan Kunal Nayyar, famous for his role as the Indian nerd in the hit sitcom The Big Bang Theory, who also chipped in as a co-producer.
Jain is working on seeking television distribution in India and a TV sale in the US. Not bad for something that began "as a project without a big plan". In the cinematic genre of cricket documentaries, Beyond All Boundaries has made a distinctive footprint and carved out a niche of its own.
Beyond All Boundaries
Director: Sushrut Jain
Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo