Directors: Nitesh Tiwari, Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari
Genre: Documentary Series
Streaming on: ZEE5
It was meant to be. Break Point, directed by film-maker couple Nitesh Tiwari and Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari, is a throbbing marriage story. The seven-part documentary series charts the highs and lows of a famous relationship: the mid-90s coupling against all odds, the cross-cultural chemistry, the heady honeymoon phase, the rift, the lack of communication, the outsiders, the separation phase, and arguably India’s most iconic divorce. At one point, both sets of parents even intervene to unite the two soulmates. It may sound like a gimmick, but the makers’ own dynamic genuinely brings a sense of balance to an inherently imbalanced piece of history. Their own experience – of working and living together – aids the assembly of a complicated narrative about two people who struggled to distinguish between working and living together. The interviewing is sharp and detailed. There is clarity about the rhythm and editing, even when the material becomes repetitive. This merging of storytellers and story is no match made in heaven, but it’s a compelling – and perhaps necessarily campy – portrait of platonic disintegration.
After all, Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi (or is it Mahesh Bhupathi and Leander Paes?) were no ordinary couple. The fire and ice of Indian tennis took the sports world by storm, scaled the peak of the mountain, only for their descent to snowball into a never-ending national spectacle. The aftershocks of their royal union still echo through the future: Fans aren’t left with appreciation for what was so much as regret for what could have been. God knows it takes a miracle for Indian athletes to dominate the world stage. But when they do, a crippling sense of humanity hijacks the picture: egos happen, silences are traded, media reports are believed. Ask the current Indian cricket team. In such situations, there are no victors. But the plurality of losing is vaster than the singularity of winning.
Given their several stop-start alliances over the years, it often felt like I was watching Connell and Marianne of Normal People reminisce about young love – nearly two decades after failing to sustain the promise of immortality. Both the partners, as well as most other players in this much-publicized saga, speak at length – older, wiser and with the privilege of hindsight. But it isn’t nostalgia that’s driving them; it’s the opportunity to be heard. They respond to the same questions in remarkably different ways, providing two sides to one feeling. But the viewer truly gets a glimpse of the magic they once shared when their responses converge. One gets witty, the other smiles. One says something damning, the other looks hurt. They’re in different rooms, different locations, likely with different directors, but I almost expected the series to reveal that they were in one room – opposite one another – all along. Such is the dramatic “fictional” language that the makers – both of whom have made high-profile Bollywood sports dramas (Dangal, Panga) – employ for this decidedly non-fictional story.
It’s an odd fusion of mediums, but more often than not, it works. The omnipresent background score has happy, sad and heroic riffs. That pre-interval electric-guitar note is unmistakable. Most episodes end with the two older men staring introspectively at a stream in the hills. The talking heads – from both “camps” – provide personal perspective, while the inclusion of superlative sports writer Rohit Brijnath adds a much-needed touch of narrative psychology. Given the lack of archival footage, getting other doubles players – Sania Mirza, Rohan Bopanna, the Bryan brothers, the legendary Woodys – to speak of them with respect to their craft fleshes out a landscape of what is otherwise a crushingly verbal documentary. Not all of them have something valuable to say, but the viewer immediately understands the global significance of the Lee-Hesh legacy.
Every chapter of the partnership, from the separate growing-up years to their serendipitous pairing, is covered from multiple angles. In fact, there’s nothing about their other playing partners, whom they won far more titles with after the split. The focus remains on the two, and the repercussions of their fate on the cultural conditioning of a single country. I’m not a fan of India-posturing in most films, but the India of Bhupathi and Paes in Break Point earns its value in context of the pair’s pre-internet aspirations. The flag and national anthem make last-minute cameos, but not just for effect.
That’s not to say Break Point is devoid of unforced errors. (Forgive me for the smart-alecky tennis pun; you know I had to). A male voice – I’m assuming Nitesh Tiwari’s – is heard asking some of the more important questions. That’s not a problem; makers include themselves all the time to suggest a more intimate leaning of their work. The problem lies in how it sounds. Presumably added in post-production, it sounds more like a God voiceover on an elevated wavelength suddenly breaking the fourth wall to converse with the characters. It takes away from the moment; the present seems to be interrupting the past. Break Point is also a little visually monotonous. One elaborately staged interview cuts to another, with barely any optical respite in between. I suppose the rest of the “filmy” treatment compensates for this aspect, not least of all Leander Paes’ strangely theatrical relationship with the camera. (Speaking of theatricality, I cannot ignore Bhupathi’s livid father declaring – on the pair’s heartbreaking Athens defeat – that “not even Roger can lose on such a big stage after being match points up”. As a wounded Federer fan, I ask: Could he not have come up with a less silly analogy?)
Not enough importance is given to the way filmmakers harness the personality of their subjects. Bhupathi is economical and precise; a champion of few words, he makes every syllable count. He’s a minimalistic new-age indie. But Paes has a way of making every line sound like the final word. The punchline. The “seeti-maar” dialogue. He’s an extravagant masala movie. His expressions, his still eyes, the oozing ego, the way his face performatively tilts the second he describes a memorable match, the big-budget eloquence of his pain – you’d think it were an actor rehearsing his lines. (I’m not going to make the Rajdhani Express joke). All of these little idiosyncrasies accumulate to reveal the unhinged intensity at the fulcrum of a yin-yang story. Paes looks like he’s playing a part, even if he’s not, as a result of which Break Point becomes just as unpredictable and edgy as his game when he’s on screen.
This whimsical aura is a boon to a documentary series that isn’t uncovering so much as confronting the ambivalence of Indian sports’ most disappointing secret. By the end, I didn’t care if I learned something new – or sensational – about the split. I didn’t care if Bhupathi still accused Paes of throwing the bronze medal match. All I cared about was closure. And if there’s one thing Break Point isn’t ashamed to admit, it’s that closure is a myth constructed from the debris of marriage.