Many biopics follow their protagonists' journey from ordinary to extraordinary. A common individual goes through arduous struggles before shining on top like a celebrity. Their victorious path is occluded with textbook struggles, including but not limited to poor financial status, personal problems and a villainous coach. All of these elements are amplified so that we feel the success attained at the end. Amole Gupte's Saina starts off with that "rousing climax win". By doing this, the film already declares her as a champion. Look at her jersey, which has the words "Nehwal S India" written on it. You can also read it as Nehwal's India. It reveals its destination (which everyone is aware of in these kinds of films) and then goes backward in the past to show how this star was born (or made).
Saina takes its name from the awe-inspiring female badminton player, but the very first shot we see is that of the shuttlecock, followed by the badminton racquet, and then the player (she is Saina Nehwal and is played by Parineeti Chopra). The intention is pretty straightforward: this story will focus first on the game and then its effect on the contender. It's as if badminton was made for Nehwal and not vice versa. As a child, she doesn't speak and remains stoic for a long time. Before her words, we hear the sounds of shuttlecocks being beaten by her racquet. Saina avoids exaggerating the usual biopic tropes. It does have the bad-for-the-sake-of-it coach, but he is reduced to a cameo. It touches on finances when Nehwal's father (Subhrajyoti Barat) is told how expensive shuttles can be. But it quickly resolves this by the next scene, giving way to a sweetly funny scene where her father sits proudly with almost eleven or twelve shuttles.
Instead of going over been-there-done-that troubles, Saina chooses to go over the hurdles faced by an established athlete (her family knows she is a star, her friends know she is a star, we know she is a star, and the film knows she is a star). The film shows her fighting against her personal complications. Her mother pushes her to always be on top, going as far as slapping her when she comes second in a competition. Nehwal goes to practice even when her mother lies unconscious in a hospital after an accident. Later, she shows signs of deviation when hovering around her love interest, named Kashyap (Eshan Naqvi). All of these can make up for hefty drama, but Saina refuses to go there. I think the reason it's not able to penetrate the psychology of its character is that the character herself displays her anger through her external actions. Instead of introspecting on her inner turmoil, she transfers them to her hands, picks up her racquet, and beats the hell out of the shuttlecock as if there is spitting fire on the other side of the net. Still, for a movie titled Saina, it leaves you craving to know more about Saina besides the fact that she likes Shah Rukh Khan's films. In one scene, she plays a video game. We are never told what game she is playing – is it an RPG, action, shooter, racing, or sports? What genre does she like? Then again, this is a person whose future is decided during childhood. Her mother determines her fate of being a badminton player. Did she have other interests? Probably not, as she was not introduced to other areas of life, education, or sports (according to the film, that is).
Parineeti Chopra is watchable here. She is not The Girl on the Train-level bad. She convincingly brings out the rage and frustration of her character in her game by wielding the racquet like a sword. Meghna Malik, as her mother, is pretty good. I liked how she shocks us with her sudden change from compassionate to choleric mother with that slap. There is an admirable scene between Nehwal and her coach Rajan Sir (Manav Kaul) after she returns, winning the four-star International Badminton event. They do not hug or dish out emotional speeches. Instead, they reveal respect for each other through their eyes and smiling gestures. While the performances are watchable, the film is a middling experience. I would like to start a petition to remove all spectators and commentators from the biopics. They deliver in-your-face lines and comment as if narrating a sentimental and soapy serial. The songs are boring and mood killers. When Nehwal meets with little girls who consider her role model, what's supposed to be an inspiring moment is treated with an absurd amount of cringe, and makes you squirm. Gupte succumbs to a dated treatment and unnecessary, heavy and overloaded melodrama. Wait till you watch inspiring figures from Nehwal's life make an appearance during a crucial match at the crucial moment. A 360-degree eye-roll is inevitable. I would not be surprised if you end up wanting those shuttlecocks to be replaced by the filmmakers.