When Saina Nehwal was accorded the World No. 1 ranking by the Badminton World Federation in 2015, filmmaker Amol Gupte instantly knew he wanted to share her story with the world. After all, competitive sports and films have much in common - the ability to draw viewers with alacrity.
Think Chak De! India, Lagaan, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, Paan Singh Tomar, and many more. Six years in the making, Saina has finally seen the light of day. Starring Parineeti Chopra in the lead, it boasts Manav Kaul, Paresh Rawal, Meghna Malik and Naisha Kaur Bhatoye in supporting roles.
"I have followed her career for the last few years, all the ups and downs of her life - when she missed out on the top spot in 2009, and took another six years to reach the pinnacle. There was no other example of a person who overcame the challenges of their humble background to reach World No. 1," Gupte explains.
Like the sports icon it is based on, the film faced numerous challenges, including a change in lead role when Shraddha Kapoor dropped out due to poor health, and the intervention of a global pandemic. Gupte believes the biggest challenge came from his responsibility towards his chosen subject.
It was imperative for him to understand the truth and soul of the character in order to portray her story without being influenced by the glamour of her achievements and charisma of her personality. He was deeply affected by the simplicity of her life and the steadfast support of her parents. By tailoring their lives to revolve exclusively around her needs, they became the mainstay she needed to overcome all odds.
When asked if it is harder to accurately depict a person that is alive, owing to increased scrutiny, Gupte affirms that it is difficult but also rewarding. Taking on a contemporary subject gives the director plenty of leeway to explore, and bring out facets that have not been documented previously.
Chopra agrees with Gupte's assessment yet expresses the difficulty of portraying a living person that is loved and adored by the masses. "It is a huge responsibility to essay someone like Saina Nehwal on screen. She is a legend and I was very apprehensive about how people would react. But I am overwhelmed with the love we are getting," she says with pride.
The film's trailer shows Chopra's sincere efforts to adopt Nehwal's physical traits and voice modulation, but according to Gupte, the unsung star of the film is the child actor Bhatoye - a badminton champion in her own right.
While Bhatoye brought an authenticity to the screen, Chopra and Manav Kaul, who plays her coach in the film, underwent extensive training to ensure the portrayal was accurate. Kaul reveals that his character is an amalgamation of Nehwal's multiple coaches. The biggest challenge for him was to ensure a sense of tension between the two characters, to mirror Nehwal’s relationship with her real-life coach.
Apart from changing one's physical appearance, the ability to play the game is of utmost importance in any sports film. Nehwal's rise to the pinnacle is indeed deserving of recognition on the big screen. Her humble beginnings and open challenge to deep-set gender bias make her story even more endearing.
In fact, when the first print was shown exclusively to Nehwal and her family, they were overwhelmed with emotion. "It was the biggest award I could hope to receive," says Gupte, who hopes that his message of equality shines bright and clear through this film - that parents should never underestimate the value of the girl child because once she is given wings, she will certainly fly.
This sentiment is echoed by Chopra, who declares, "Saina is a celebration of the unending spirit that lies in each woman."
Her words resonate in Nehwal’s generous endorsement of the film and of her on-screen adaptation. "Parineeti is a fabulous actor and we both connected so easily when we met. I hope everyone leaves the theatre with the confidence that they too can achieve their dreams," she says. Amen to that.