Saina movie review: Saina Nehwal’s biopic is inspiring but erases Gopichand and skirts inconvenient truths

Even with its flaws, Saina does provoke some thought, is moving in places and has some fun to offer.

Anna MM Vetticad March 26, 2021 16:57:07 IST

2.75/5

Saina Nehwal does not have a flamboyant public persona. What she does have are unprecedented sporting achievements and a life featuring the sort of drama that is inevitable for one so successful. Director Amole Gupte’s eponymous biopic stars Parineeti Chopra as the former badminton world No. 1. The film gets a lot right, but hesitates over other elements, leaving several questions in its wake.

Gupte, who was a creative director on Taare Zameen Par (2007) and made 2011’s contemplative Stanley Ka Dabba, gives Saina a linear narrative bookended in a sense by a press conference. The film travels with its subject from her childhood interest in the game, to her move from Haryana to Hyderabad where she meets the coach who changes her life, and ends on the tournament with which she earned her numero uno global position. It is an inspiring journey, featuring certain financial hardship and tremendous personal heartbreak. Some of that pain is effectively conveyed in Saina, some not. Where the film truly comes into its own is when it chronicles badminton matches with the same energy as live telecasts of actual events.

One of Nehwal’s key real-life relationships was with her mentor, former All-England Open champion Pullela Gopichand. The coach is an important character in the film too, but he is renamed Sarvadhamaan Rajan. Gopichand’s role in Nehwal’s rise, their split, rumours that she felt he was paying more attention to P.V. Sindhu, her triumphs without him and their reunion are widely known, so the decision to rechristen him in Saina is inexplicable. It is especially odd since there is nothing overtly defamatory in the screenplay that one might assume this call was taken to avoid a lawsuit.

Coach Rajan is shown once again towards the end of Saina when the protagonist’s narration acknowledges all those on whose shoulders she stood to reach the top. However, photographs of the real Nehwal with her family, friends and public figures accompanying the credits do not feature a single shot of her with Gopichand. This feels terribly ungracious, and makes you wonder if their rift was even more bitter than the public realises.

(Spoilers ahead) The only action by the fictional Rajan that might reflect poorly on Gopichand if it is accepted as the truth is the part where Saina breaks up with her long-time boyfriend Kashyap when the coach accuses her of getting distracted by the relationship. Saina’s compliance is reluctant. She asks Kashyap in a rage whether sportsmen are ever similarly pressured and if anyone ever asked Sachin Tendulkar why he got married so early. It is a valid question, but since the discussion is left at that, it is also simplistic, because marriage, in the way it is practised by most people, is a patriarchal institution in which a man gains a  home manager and a mother to his heirs – there is, therefore, no equivalence between what marriage might do to the careers of a male and female sportsperson. I am not at all suggesting that Coach Rajan was correct (or not), I am only pointing out that the film does not explore the matter to the full extent of its complexity. (Spoiler alert ends)

Saina movie review Saina Nehwals biopic is inspiring but erases Gopichand and skirts inconvenient truths

Parineeti Chopra in and as Saina. Image from Twitter

Despite the contentious choices the film makes regarding the coach, it is to him that the screenplay assigns its most stirring advice: the problem is not that we dream big and don’t fulfill our dreams, Rajan tells Saina during one of their clashes, the problem is that we  dream small and achieve those dreams. Whoa! Taaliyaan please. Seriously.

It takes an actor of Manav Kaul’s calibre to pull off such a line without sounding bombastic. Kaul as Coach Rajan is one of the highlights of the cast. The other is Parineeti Chopra.

After she burst on to the Bollywood scene with Ladies Vs Ricky Bahl (2011) and followed that up with a crackling performance in Ishaqzaade (2012), Chopra has been saddled with a middling filmography. In Saina, she gets a director and a role that offer her both breadth and width, and she rises to the challenge. The actor plays down her naturally vivacious personality and sparkling eyes for the not-so-showy character she plays here. Most impressively, she gets the body language of a sportsperson right and actually looks the part on court.

No other character is given the same expanse of writing. Kashyap (played by Eshan Naqvi), for one, remains little more than a pretty face. And Ankur Vikal’s turn as a coach speaking indecipherable English with a heavy southern accent is caricaturish.

Just as Saina erases Pullela Gopichand from its story, it also opts to steer clear of the real Nehwal’s troubling right-wing politics, the manner in which she has parroted templated praise for the present government on social media and her public applause for extra-judicial killings of suspected criminals.

This then is not a comprehensive biography of a sports superstar, but one that brushes inconvenient truths about her under the carpet and is not as socio-politically aware as one might expect from the choice of theme. Still, for those who have not tracked Nehwal’s life too closely, Saina is a potentially motivating film, entertaining if for no other reason than those well-produced matches in which Chopra’s involvement in the game is bolstered by Piyush Shah’s excellent camerawork and Manas Choudhury’s sound design.

Even with its flaws, Saina does provoke some thought, is moving in places and has some fun to offer.

Rating: 2.75 (out of 5 stars)

Saina is now running in theatres

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