Posters of cricketers and tennis players, and not filmstars, adorned the walls of documentary maker Supriya Sobti-Gupta’s home in Bandra, Mumbai, in the 1990s. As a family, they invested a lot of their time and energy into every cricket match India played. Therefore, when the match-fixing scandal was exposed, primarily through quality investigative journalism by ‘Outlook’ magazine, they felt shocked and cheated.
“Cricketers were our heroes. They represented the nation on the global stage, and as a spectator you poured every emotion into the game when India played,” Sobti-Gupta says. “Sometimes in the 90s, if India lost, or if there was a dropped catch, there would be murmurs about match-fixing. To then have a scandal which confirmed that this was a reality was like living your worst nightmare.”
Marrying this angst with her desire to tell a compelling story, and this time through the investigators of the scandal, Sobti-Gupta directed the Netflix documentary, ‘Caught Out: Crime. Corruption. Cricket’. In this interview, she speaks about the joys and challenges of her directorial debut, such as securing difficult interviews and working through pregnancy.
It’s been over two decades since the match-fixing controversy. What made you take up this subject now?
I’m a kid of the 1980s who grew up watching cricket, particularly in the 90s, when it started beaming on satellite TV, and not just on the state broadcaster.
Growing up, the match-fixing scandal was one of those events you would remember the rest of your life. You had invested so much time in the sport, you felt cheated by match-fixing and the guilty players.
Now, some 20 years on and as a documentary-maker, I thought, ‘What stories do I want to tell?’ And I realized I wanted to tell stories we were invested in as a people. It’s a retrospective story, of course, but it’s a story of our feelings, which often dictate the trajectory of cricket in India.
Was it ever a niggling thought that a lot had been done on match-fixing already?
I felt while we know the result of the scandal, there is not enough light on the finer details of it. We didn’t quite know the story from the eyes and ears of the investigators (such as former ‘Outlook’ reporter Aniruddha Bahal, former CBI joint director Ravi Sawani and former Delhi Police Commissioner Neeraj Kumar), who carried the burden on their shoulders of telling the truth. I call them the unsung heroes, because the dirty job they took on some 20 years ago could have made them a lot of dangerous enemies.
How hard was it to get interviews with the likes of Sawani and Neeraj Kumar?
It was not easy. We first had to gain their trust that we would be telling their story in the right way. Twenty years ago, they had stuck their necks out in the investigation, and now they were going to do it again, so they wanted to be sure we would do justice to their story.
Also, I knew I wanted to make this about the investigators and humanise them, so I reached out to them with a very earnest approach. I could be wrong, but I also think the fact that this film was helmed by two women (producer Megha Mathur being the other), and given the work we had done in the past (‘Bad Boy Billionaires’, ‘Mumbai Mafia’), a lot of our contributors warmed up to us a little more than they might have otherwise. We were entering this without preconceived notions, biases or a know-it-all attitude. So it was a blank canvas and we wanted them to paint the canvas from their angle.
Did you reach out to cricketers?
We reached out to some cricketers, including those who were named in the investigative reports (such as Mohammad Azharuddin), but they did not want to talk. By and large the player community maintained a conspiracy of silence.
How did Netflix come on board?
My partners Passion Pictures UK and I went to Netflix with the story idea. They liked it and gave it a go-ahead. I’d like to believe I had proved myself with some of the other big projects I had done as a producer, which involved dealing with legal issues and understanding what to do on the ground. Netflix was willing to deep dive into this with me as director, hand-hold me through the process. It was a complete collaboration from the start.
When does a documentary maker’s day start and end, typically?
There is no fixed time. You go all in when you are making a film. You do not leave your work outside. You are married to the film for that period.
I found out I was pregnant when this film got commissioned, which proved to be a blessing. I couldn’t afford to give myself time to feel any of the complications or the crankiness that pregnancy can cause.
How do you see cricket now? Do you think it is clean of corruption?
I now see it as entertainment more than a sport. Particularly, the leagues. Not to say they’re a bad thing, because they give livelihood and opportunities to so many youngsters.
I wouldn’t go to the extent of saying cricket, or sport, is all clean. You still hear of scandals, whether it’s cricket, boxing, cycling, or anything else. You know it happens the world over. But the more important thing is, if you don’t talk about it, you are not going to be able to deal with it.