Director: Amole Gupte
Writers: Amole Gupte, Amitosh Nagpal
Editor: Deepa Bhatia
Cinematography: Piyush Shah
Cast: Parineeti Chopra, Meghna Malik, Manav Kaul, Eeshan Naqvi, Subhrajyoti Barat
Saina is a sports biopic in nursery rhyme. The script – a human life – is simplified to the point of it being sung to kids in a classroom: Little Saina sat on the (China) Wall, old Saina had a great fall, all of Saina's coaches and all of Saina's strength, managed to put Saina together again. Given director Amole Gupte's penchant for children's stories (Stanley Ka Dabba, Sniff, Hawa Hawai), the simplistic tone is hardly surprising. But the lack of adult direction – both literally and cinematically – is alarming. When a 9-year-old Saina Nehwal (who does a far better job of resembling her real-life counterpart) loses a final and beams "Look Ma, silver medal!", she is promptly slapped by her Haryanvi-in-Hyderabad mother. No if, no but, only Jatt. What's fascinating is that this happens on the podium, with two other girls in the background who haven't been told what to do – so the poor things just stand awkwardly, wondering where to look and how to move. Ditto for the boys and coaches at Saina's early practice sessions in Hyderabad's Lal Bahadur Shastri Academy: the camera is on Saina, but the others are just filling space and smiling passively at the air. Also ditto for Saina's elder sister, who speaks all of 2.5 words in the film, and exists solely to juxtapose mute mediocrity against her sibling's spunk.
Like previous Bollywood odes to iconic-but-active Indian athletes in the twilight of their careers, Saina too has the emotional complexity of a colouring book. It opens with Saina Nehwal winning the 2018 Commonwealth Gold medal as an underdog, and then reminiscing about her two-decade-long badminton journey at a press conference (?). The media of course asks her the kind of questions that I assume most filmmakers ask their famous subjects in lieu of script research: "How does it feel?" "How are you like this?" "What does it take?" "Why are you so strong?" Once her narration begins, the same old sports-movie templates resurface. Little girl is taken to the coaching camp, she is scoffed at, she wows the male coaches, mother cheers. When all is going well, mother goes into coma, girl vents her grief in an international tournament. Little pre-teen girl morphs into a big teen girl mid-match, wins the nationals, meets a stern new coach, and stars in a weight-loss song. She wins first big tournament, puts India on the map, and becomes a hero. When endorsement offers pour in and young love blossoms, tensions arise between Dronacharya and Arjun. Conflict: she loses focus, fractures her ankle, gets inspired by the children who idolise her (one of them is naturally named Saina), charts a comeback to become India's first World No. 1 with a new coach. Chapter closed. Turn the page.
I had my doubts about Parineeti Chopra as Saina Nehwal, and the film merely confirms them ten times over. Her accent changes in sync with her emotions (dramatic = normal/Bollywood, determined = Haryanvi/Dangal), and her training for the film does not translate to a lived-in, lithe physicality on court. Her face is fatally readable. While watching her winning shot land inside the lines, she eyes the shuttlecock as if it were a serial killer: the shock of victory does not look very different from the shock of losing a loved one. Equally uncomfortable is Meghna Malik as Saina's mother, who seems to have interpreted her role as that of a ghost whisperer: the wide eyes and obvious instructions seem to be aimed at invisible infants rather than flesh-and-blood adults. The brief for Manav Kaul as a Pullela Gopichand stand-in reads "Shah Rukh Khan in Chak De! India," which sort of reflects the derivative style of every cool coach in Hindi cinema since.
Did I learn anything new about Saina Nehwal that Wikipedia could not cover? No. Did I learn why Saina became a pathbreaker for professional women's sport in a country obsessed with male superstars? No. Did I understand why the on-court coaching she receives features phrases like "Life is a cucumber, enjoy it!"? No. Do her journey's bullet points shed light on the driven girl behind the persona? No. Does the film have the courage to not be superficial and reverential about the split between Saina and coach Gopichand? No. Is boyfriend-turned-husband and fellow badminton player Parupalli Kashyap anything more than a cheerleader who saves her name as "Saina World no. 1" on his Nokia phone? No. Is there a legitimate explanation for her trademark face mole magically expanding according to the importance of the tournament? No. Does the trajectory and speed of a smash merit a smash in return? No.
Is there a reason the stadium of the Syed Modi International final in the climax resembles a dance reality show audience? No. Is there a valid reason the trademark screams of Spanish player Carolina Marin are simply copy+pasted into each point instead of varying its volumes according to the intensity of the game? No. Will we come out of the theatre with a renewed understanding of the relationship between champions and fortitude? No. Are we proud of Saina Nehwal? Yes. And perhaps that's the only answer an Indian sports biopic cares for.