‘Saina’ avoids Bollywood biopic tropes, creates some

The smartest thing ‘Saina’ does is to reference ‘Dhal gaya din, ho gayi shaam’ within the first 10 minutes, as the childhood coach asserts that badminton isn’t a game people play in the colony parks.

The reminder check sets the tone for anyone who still hums the ‘Humjoli’ number with a racquet in hand. It also sets the ‘badminton in Bollywood’ bar super low for ‘Saina’. The film is a by-the-numbers Bollywood sports biopic, down to our distressed sportstar’s climactic flashback. Farhan’s Milkha sees ghosts from the Punjab past. Fatima’s Geeta Phogat remembers gasping for air underwater under her ‘haanikarak baapu’s’ gaze. Priyanka’s Mary sees her family. Cousin Parineeti’s Saina sees all her mentors and aides popping up one by one like the Avengers.

Parineeti Chopra is game off the court, efficiently imitating the mannerisms, the gait and the straight-talk of the Hisar-born shuttler. On it, she seems to be playing in slow-motion. It’s unfair to expect an Olympian’s movement, but the difference is jarring with background shots comprising actual badminton trainees whipping smashes. It doesn’t help that Nehwal’s teammate-turned-husband Parupalli Kashyap is played by Ehsan Naqvi, a three-time Maharashtra state champion with a long hang time.

Kashyap, Saina and her parents Harvir Singh and Usha Rani are the select few who retain their real names. The most inexplicable case of rechristening is Pullela Gopichand’s, who is called Rajan. He is a hard taskmaster — “Jo jhel paayega, wahi khel paayega” — and, according to Nehwal’s childhood coach, the only one who could make her a world-beater.

But we are never told why. Along with the name, Gopichand is also stripped of his badminton credentials. The All England exploits and national awards are only briefly alluded to, in a rare scene that doesn’t feature Saina, when Gopichand’s wife tells him: “These advertisers and brands also approached you but you turned them down.”

The real-life Gopichand-Saina split was an opportunity to add layers to cardboard ‘sports biopic’ characters. The frostiness, reports of Nehwal seeking personalised attention and Gopichand tending to other simultaneously rising careers, could’ve been incorporated in this celluloid narrative as shades of grey.

The film, however, sidesteps the episode as Nehwal quits Rajan’s tutelage after being rebuked for distractions of endorsements and relationship with Kashyap. Cue: Nehwal moving to Bengaluru to train under Vimal, errr… Jeevan Kumar.

At least the two coaches are present via proxy. Conspicuous by her absence is India’s other badminton star, PV Sindhu. Fair enough, the film isn’t called ‘Sindhu’ or ‘Gopichand’. Those are reportedly in production; the latter starring Gopichand’s former doubles partner-turned Telugu star Sudheer Babu as the titular character.

The one who should feel hard done by is the reigning Olympic champion, three-time world champion and nemesis of Nehwal and Sindhu: Carolina Marin. ‘Carla Martinez’ in the film, the Spaniard has been reduced to a “jungli billi” whose one note is the high-note shriek. “Kabhi toh dara deti hai, kabhi rok deti hai,” notes Nehwal’s mother. “Ye galat hai, ye Saina ke concentration pe vaar hai,” commentators address the screams.

The match in question is the 2015 Syed Modi international final, where multiple real-world narratives are conflated into the climax. At stake is the world No.1 ranking, the one feat missing from Saina’s resume. She prevails, saving match points in the final game to win 19-21, 25-23, 21-16, becoming only the second Indian after Prakash Padukone to reach the rankings summit.

In reality, the match was no less dramatic, only the memorable 25-23 scoreline was in the second game, not the decider. The world No.1 ranking too came two months later.

The pursuit for the ranking being the climax means the audience is short-changed with the Olympic bronze and 2010 CWG medal haul reduced to blink-and-you miss blurbs. The slump in form and string of losses are also done away within seconds.

Dangal had a similar sequence. But every defeat there was accompanied by a close-up of a bruised, dejected, humanised Geeta. Whatever happened to ‘show, don’t tell’?

Scoreline nitpicks and unsatisfactory depiction of the sport (for a game dictated and punctuated by dizzying rallies, there’s not a single, intense, prolonged exchange) notwithstanding, the film portrays Saina as a trailblazer smashing glass ceilings with honesty. A scene placing the idol in a hall full of young dreamers and Saina wannabes represents the ‘Saina Nehwal’ effect on Indian badminton.

Nehwal reasserts the importance of being an inspiration for girls in her appearance during the credits. Perhaps ‘Saina’ the film could do some more of that.

Yes, it occasionally makes a mountain out of a mole.

But this attempt at presenting the blood, sweat, tears and grit of an athlete is far better than the all-white clad, dancing and singing badminton players of old Bollywood.

P.S. The very first newspaper clipping proud father Harvir Singh Nehwal pastes in his scrapbook is headlined ‘Sania wins Under-13 title’. The filmmakers can pass off the faux-pas as a cerebral spoof on anyone who’s ever confused the names of India’s two great racquet-wielding contemporaries.

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