As Shabaash Mithu gears up to hit the screens tomorrow, the team at FC looks back at their favourite sports films with a woman at the centre. From South cinema and Bollywood to movies from around the world, the list takes a look at the cinematic milestones we achieved to view female athletes on-screen the way we do today.
Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding is best known not for being a two-time Olympian and a two-time Skate America Champion; but for her involvement in the assault of fellow American figure skater, Nancy Kerrigan. The attack on Kerrigan was planned by Harding’s then-husband and when all this came out, the United States Figure Skating Association banned Harding for life. This is not the kind of protagonist one would usually consider sympathetically, but I, Tonya will make you feel all the feels for this strange, sad, brilliant and difficult woman. And it’s all thanks to director Craig Gillespie’s inspired decision to recount Harding’s life through the prism of a mockumentary and some amazing performances, including Margot Robbie‘s magnificent transformation into Harding.
I, Tonya is a sensitive, poignant and frequently hilarious look at Harding’s life. Without glossing over Harding’s angularities, the film shows she was abused by those closest to her and it turns out that being extraordinarily talented isn’t necessarily enough to climb up the professional (and social) ladder. The way Harding was treated by the elite world of American figure skating shows how insular and snobbish it is. For all her faults (and she has many), Harding emerges as a wounded and defiant survivor.
Bend it Like Beckham
It’s been 20 years since Parminder Nagra dribbled into our lives as Jesminder “Jess” Bhamra, yet the story of a young woman who is torn between her traditional Punjabi family and her love for football (and a white woman) remains both relevant and great fun to watch. Is it full of clichés? Yes. Is there overacting? You bet. Will you have a stupid grin stretching across your face while watching the film’s final scene? Absolutely.
Directed by Gurinder Chadha, Bend it Like Beckham felt unlike anything we’d seen from the West before, even though it was full of familiar tropes. A girl being forced to choose between her family and her ambition is hardly a novel idea, but when the family is British-Punjabi and the girl’s ambition is to be a footballer, the setup feels new. Add to this the detail of the romantic sub-plot — of course there’s a love story. As per the standard requirements of a film made for and by desis, there’s a love story and also a wedding — which is between two women. Plus, along with the saris and teenage angst and cultural clashes, there really is a lot of football in Bend it Like Beckham. For better or for worse, 20 years since its release and despite its clichés, Bend it Like Beckham still feels both authentic and refreshing.
With Mary Kom, first-time director Omung Kumar gave us a dramatised story of India’s best female boxer, a convincing enough Manipur and a peak into what healthy marriages could look like. But, none of these holds a candle to Priyanka Chopra’s performance as the fierce Mary Kom. Despite the obvious issues with casting, Chopra plays the messy, belligerent and movingly dedicated young woman with precision. Mary’s rage often changes shape in the film: sometimes, it is the rage of being a woman. Other times, it is the rage of being a wife and a mother, the rage of having a difficult father and the rage of being a North East Indian. But it is amply clear that this rage and her resilience share a symbiotic relationship – they war constantly but one also fuels the other. With Chopra’s strenuous training videos making the rounds a day before the film was released, her grit and sculpted shoulders are hard to ignore in the film.
Eight years since its release, Mary Kom remains one of the best portraits of a female athlete in India.
Rajisha Vijayan played the role of a cyclist in an earlier sports drama titled Finals, but what makes Rahul Riji Nair’s Kho Kho a more distinct addition to this list is how it’s about a women’s kho kho team being coached by its first woman PE trainer. This equation between the team and its female coach leads to several situations we seldom see covered in sports dramas. For instance, when a student falls for one of the teaching staff, the implications of that relationship go beyond that of the team’s final performance. As the coach, Rajisha’s character is invested in her students, but she can also place herself as one among them, expecting them to make the mistakes she once did. It’s again this relationship between the coach and the students that stand out when one of them has to deal with period pains. A film with a male coach rarely broaches this topic, let alone deal with it in an everyday, matter-of-fact way. Although the film misses the same sensitivity through its runtime, it gave a new dimension to a genre that’s so filled with constricting tropes that you’ve come to expect nothing new from it.
Million Dollar Baby
Clint Eastwood‘s bleak and brooding boxing drama – starring Hillary Swank as a spirited aspiring boxer – is not just a great women-centric sports film, but simply a great sports film. It’s also not just a great sports film, but one of the greatest films ever to reveal the conflicted relationship between humanity, life and sports. I haven’t worked up the courage to watch it again all these years later. It dares to eschew the underdog-against-all-odds arc and happily-ever-after trope in favour of a heartbreaking tragedy – one that feels like it’s deliberately interfering with our previous perception of what a sports film should look like. In my opinion, it does to the sports film what Batman Begins did to the modern superhero film – reinvent the language without altering its core. Swank is phenomenal as an over-eager protege to Eastwood’s grumpy coach character; her performance is central to a film that understands both the triumph and toxicity of young ambition.
Kanaa is set in the familiar trope of the cricket field and traces the story of Kousalya Murugesan (Aishwarya Rajesh), an aspiring bowler. Laced with the stereotypes she has to fight, for being a Tamil girl from a small village, the story manages to keep you engaged. The cricket scenes, both at the local level and the international stage, play out beautifully. The film also touches upon the farming issues quite cleverly without disturbing the central plot.
Though several Indian films, including biopics and historical narratives are focused on cricket, this fictional tale cements a special place. Its focus on a woman cricketer and the struggles of the Indian women’s cricket team explores a different story in a very predictable and familiar setting. What makes this film fall short are a few clichés including a romantic angle and the second half where the focus shifts toward a male coach, his backstory, and his influence in helping Kousalya scale up the ladder.
However, hopping on to the benefits of the cricket fandom in India and backed by a brilliant performance by Aishwarya Rajesh, Arunraja Kamaraj’s directorial debut was a sixer!
Saand Ki Aankh
When you think of shooting as a sport, 60-year-old ladies barely came to mind before Saand Ki Aankh was released. Based on the lives of sisters-in-law Chandro and Prakashi Tomar, the film traces their journey from being young brides to becoming multiple-medal-winning shooting champions. Hailing from a state infamous for its gender violence and discrimination, these Shooter Dadis of UP changed the lives of many young women who came after them. Despite the questionable casting of Taapsee Pannu and Bhumi Pednekar to play older women (as Neena Gupta lives and breathes) and its impact on the messaging of the film, the younger actresses deliver feisty performances. Directed by debutant Tushar Hiranandani, the film is a wonderful blend of sharp humour, heartening female friendship and the resilience to dream.
Think Irudhi Suttru, and your mind immediately goes to boxing. This is no simple feat for a commercial entertainer like the film, which introduces Tamil audiences to the complexities of the sport, while keeping intact the elements of a mass film. The movie essentially revolves around two hotheads who share a love for the sport — Prabhu (R Madhavan) a salty Indian women’s boxing coach and Madhi (Ritika Singh), a boxer and fisherwoman from North Chennai, who spews expletives and Muhammad Ali quotes in the same breath. Even as the film follows a hearty rags-to-riches tale, the comedic treatment of the screenplay makes it stand out. Kongara expertly uses conversational dialogue (Arun Matheshwaran) and splendid soundtrack (Santhosh Narayanan’s sounds often mimic the pace of a boxer’s nifty footwork) to convey the genre’s flavour. While the film does involve narratives of romance, as with a typical entertainer, Kongara’s knack to balance and steer the tightly-cut film to its focus — boxing — makes this a winning sports drama.
If you’re a woman in Iran, you can’t go to watch a football match in a stadium. True story. Jafar Panahi fictionalises it, but only slightly, based on his daughter’s experiences: a girl disguises herself as a boy and tries to sneak into a crucial world cup qualifier between Iran and Bahrain. The director stages his film around an actual match, but we don’t see a single second of it. Offside is one of the most unusual sports films that exist, one that happens to centre on a woman — or women, as the protagonist soon finds out when she’s detained by the army personnel deployed for security at the Aazad stadium in Tehran. Ironies abound. Hilarity ensues. Even as Panahi protests, he doesn’t forget to live. Currently, he is in prison, reportedly arrested as part of a clampdown on dissidents by the conservative regime.
Tell us your favourite sports films centred around women in the comments!