Supriya Sobti Gupta is no stranger to the world of hard-hitting stories. She is a former journalist and has recently debuted as a director with ‘Caught Out’ which discusses the match-fixing scandal threadbare. In an exclusive interview with ‘Deccan Chronicle’, she tells how ‘Caught Out’ was born, if documentaries will ever have a theatrical release in India, and what impact the Oscar win for ‘The Elephant Whisperers’ will have on the genre.
Congratulations on the documentary ‘Caught Out’. How has been the response so far?
Cricket is a religion in India. There is so much that cricket stands for today. It maps our trajectory as a nation on the global stage. There has been a lot of buzz around this film. There are personal sentiments involved, especially for the people who used to watch cricket in the 80s. This film has unraveled what happened when the biggest cricketing scandal broke. It was a wake-up call. Fans felt cheated.
Any specific reason why you chose match-fixing as a subject for your documentary which is also your directorial debut?
I have been producing some hard-hitting documentaries and films, many of which are on Netflix. Before that, I used to be a journalist working with global networks like ‘BBC’, and ‘Al Jazeera’. It trained me to look at matters very objectively, to investigate, understand, explore, and deep dive into my subject. Cricket is an important issue that involves so many emotions and passion. I felt this mattered to me when I was growing up in the 90s and used to watch cricket with my family. So, when the opportunity arose, I pitched this story. The focus was to tell the story from the point of view of the investigators, whether it is the journalists or the CBI, and tell the audience what happened.
What were the unique challenges you faced while making this documentary?
This is one of the quickest deliveries we had for the streaming platform. We started research on this in September 2021 and we got down to filming in January 2022. One of our biggest challenges was that we knew access was going to be limited. You are telling the story from the point of view of the investigators but you also want to reach out to the subjects involved. There is a right to reply. As ethical journalists and filmmakers, you want to make sure you are not painting the canvas with just one brush but you are telling a very balanced side of the story with various stakeholders involved. Access was always going to be one of the difficulties and it is something we encountered even with the people we had. They were worried about what route we were going to take, what kind of path we were going to go down, how much of it is going to come out in the film, and how the narrative is going to play out.
Another challenge was we were filming at the time of Covid. It was difficult to assemble a team and work with the challenges the scenario presented us with.
Thirdly, on a personal level, I was pregnant when I started filming this. Fortunately, I had great support from Netflix. I had great support from my company in London and we delivered this project in the stipulated time. I was pregnant with twins so I can say I had three deliveries. (Laughs)
What sort of research went into making this documentary?
We wanted to get to the crux of match-fixing. We realized that the canvas would be too large if we did not give it a definitive point. So, we made the 2000 match-fixing scandal our definitive point. Because it was this scandal that impacted us as a nation, as a people, and as cricket fans the most. We saw our biggest heroes being pulled up. Extensive research went into it. We spoke to a lot of journalists and cricketers. We spoke to a lot many more people than we actually see in the film. When we started piecing the story together and wanted to take the audience on a journey, having too many talking heads in the film would have come in the way. While you want to inform and enlighten people, you also want to entertain them.
Were there any apprehensions while making this documentary as cricket continues to be a popular sport in our country and fans do not like anything negative about it?
Yes. We have all invested in it so much. It means so much to us. It is something that has united us as a nation. Your cricketers were your heroes. They came from various backgrounds and they made it right to the top. They just made you believe that there is room for you if you have talent and are determined and get to the top. There was an element of apprehension if, do we want to go down the route of dashing hopes again and remind people of the dark history of the sport which has now come to become such an extravaganza. Therefore, we wanted to make it celebratory. We wanted to tell the story in a way that it comes out of the dark period and becomes what it is today. Cricket is again the champion of hope. Look at the WPL. So many girls are now inducted into the sport. We wanted to tell that once you get to the top, what matters is how you conduct yourself. There will be ramifications if something goes wrong.
Had you approached Md. Azharuddin to appear in the documentary?
We reached out to all the players. We wanted to be very fair in our representation. There is a plethora of archives that we have woven into the film. But we also wanted to give players a chance to tell their side of the story. Unfortunately, none of them agreed to comment. Because we wanted to be fair, we at least reached out to their lawyers and made sure we got their point of view in. That’s what we can do as filmmakers, try and make it as balanced as possible.
What has changed after the advent of OTTs as far as documentaries are concerned?
People still prefer song and dance and drama in our country. Documentaries are enjoyed by a very small audience of our population. Because primarily when people switch on the TV, they want to be entertained. You are dealing with enough on a daily basis at home, and at work. So, when you turn on your TV, you want to escape. Having said that, there still is an audience space, small but growing. ‘The Elephant Whisperers’ win has shown that there is a market globally. Within the country, there are so many stories to be told. There is a market for people who want to know the story from the people who were involved, people who have first-hand inside information of how events unraveled. It’s a slow process. It’s a very nascent industry. Netflix has done a commendable job by picking up such important issues that are so challenging.
‘The Elephant Whisperers’ recently won an Oscar. Do you think that this recognition will help the genre, in general, to be more popular and acceptable to the viewers?
I have been working in this industry for about 15 years now. I have worked with international production houses that were always interested in India. But, it was an outsider’s take on what was happening in India. With this win, I think it demonstrated that there is a market for regional stories, not just urban-centric stories. Because ‘The Elephant Whisperers’ is not from your urban centers. There are so many regional stories to tap into. The fact that it made a mark for itself on a global level is a wake-up call for us. There are incredible stories that we may perhaps have taken for granted but deserved to be told. I think we have been able to do that with global streaming platforms allowing them to tell it a certain way. Story-telling skills are a lot more accentuated, and better now. We are doing it now with international skills at the international level. We are telling stories with a lot more panache.
Will documentaries ever have a theatrical release in India? Will it ever enter the Rs 100-cr club?
I do not see a theatrical release for the documentary happening in the near future. We got to take baby steps. The fact that we are cultivating a market for documentaries is a great start. Because Bollywood tells a story in a way that helps to draw in people. Before the theatrical release of documentaries happens, there are a lot many challenges that we need to overcome. It’s one step at a time. We still need to cultivate belief in documentary storytelling. The numbers game is also important. Look at ‘Pathan’s’ numbers and look at ‘The Elephant Whisperers’ numbers. Most people would have watched ‘The Elephant Whisperers’ after the Oscar win. And that’s so unfortunate. I think the Oscar-win is going to propel more and more people to watch it. But why should it be that way? Here is an incredible story, it impacts each one of us. Yet people would have watched a Bollywood film with a big star rather than watching ‘The Elephant Whisperers’. This win is a vote of confidence in the craft I am rooted in. For the audience, we will have to come out with really amazing stories told by amazing people right at the top of the pyramid, and getting people at the top of the pyramid to buy in, is going to take time.