Saina movie review: Parineeti Chopra serves, drops and smashes as badminton champ

Saina movie cast: Parineeti Chopra, Manav Kaul, Meghna Malik, Eshan Naqvi, Rohan Apte, Subrajyoti Virat, Ankur Vikal, Sharrman Dey, Sameer Bassi
Saina movie director: Amol Gupte
Saina movie rating: 3 stars

First things first: Parineeti Chopra nails the body language of a top flight badminton player in ‘Saina’, Amol Gupte’s admiring biopic. Through her attacking, elegant game, Saina Nehwal put Indian women shuttlers on the global map in a fiercely competitive sport, and she remains the first and only female player to have won so many championships. As Parineeti serves, drops and smashes, the action on court is wholly believable, and helps us get past the wobbly bits of the movie.

One of the double-edged advantages of making a biopic on a sportsperson who is still playing the game, is that everything is documented. Accuracy will be lauded; things which appear fudged will be found out. Why, for example, does Pullela Gopichand, Nehwal’s coach, here played by Manav Kaul, not given his real name? Why is he called, instead, Rajan? Why is her rival in the crucial 2015 tournament in Lucknow, which anointed her World No 1, not called Carolina Marin? These are puzzling, and don’t fit in a film that otherwise appears scrupulously based on research.

A significant portion of the beginning is devoted to Saina as a little girl, being drummed into shape by her mother Usha Rani (Meghna Malik, fierce, feisty and believable), herself a badminton player. Buttered aloo parathas and two litres of milk are stuffed daily into the little girl (Naisha Kaur Bhatoye; very good) who proves she has both talent and speed, and the will to win. It is Rajan who gets her onto a champion’s heavy-on-protein, light-on-carbs diet, and teaches her to use her mind as well as her limbs.

A true badminton player is like a ballet dancer, and the best players in the world combine both grace and strength. That transition is one of the most engaging parts of the film, and Kaul does a great job of showing his mentee the way: he focuses only on focus, he says in a speech bordering on the pedantic; anything else, there’s the door. Kaul looks the part, but is never shown on court. Why? Not seeing a player of Gopichand’s calibre in action, even if he is named Rajan, is a major miss.

In real-life, there was a much-storied break between Gopichand and Saina, which saw her move from Hyderabad to Bangalore, into the hands of another coach (Ankur Vakil, sprightly in a small part). In the movie, we are told that it was because she was getting distracted by a string of lucrative endorsements. We also see her getting ‘distracted’ by the sweet attention fellow fine player Parupalli Kashyap (Eshan Naqvi) pays her. What little we see of the relationship is shaped by the fact that they play well together, sharing the court and the couch in a workman like manner. A little more between the two, or even the other two players Rohan (Rohan Apte) and Damodar (Sharman Dey), the group which grows into adulthood and constant friendship after spending years in rigorous training, would have given us a more rounded film.

But for all these little problems, including an initial clunky line about being a patriotic ‘Bharat ki beti’, a post-interval bit which threatens to sag, one ‘inspiring’ song, too much swelling background music (how else is a Bollywood movie to create drama?) as well as a little too much rah rah surrounding the subject (the time when the targets of Bollywood biopics can be shown warts and all is still a long way off), ‘Saina’ manages to be a proper sports movie, committed to the stretches which show the unstinting, relentless working up of blood, sweat and tears that go into the making of a winner, and the sacrifices those winners have to make to stay on top. And once she settles into it, leaving aside the very occasional mannerism, Parineeti gives us a good, solid Saina: when she raises her racket after a hard-fought win, you cheer.

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