An actor prepares… and even more so when he or she steps into the shoes of a sports star. To an average viewer, playing a sportsperson on screen may seem like a simple act of wearing running shoes, holding a badminton racquet or wielding a cricket bat. However, it is hard labour. As Parineeti Chopra-starrer ‘Saina’ opens to positive reviews, with more than half-a-dozen sports biopics in the pipeline, we look at what it takes to ace the act.
Jagdeep Sidhu, writer of the National Award-winning ‘Harjeeta’, says the challenges are manifold. “Apart from learning the grammar of the sport in question, the actor has to factor in the physical transformation and get the nuances, the dialect and a host of other details about the real-life player right.” To play the 16- to 21-year graph of Harjeeta, Ammy Virk had to lose over 20 kg. Gaining or losing weight, though arduous and essential, is only a minor part of the transformation. Besides learning the fundamentals of the sport, actors have to play like champions too. As Parineeti shared in a behind-the-scenes video: “The idea was not to act like Saina, but be Saina.”
Omung Kumar, director of ‘Mary Kom’ adds, “It’s an obstacle race all the way.” When he cast Priyanka Chopra for the titular part of the record-holder world amateur boxing champion, he was met with cynicism and criticism. He shares how she had to learn boxing, which is not an average sport. Though he hired the best of coaches to train Priyanka, the task “didn’t end there. She had to box like Mary Kom, who is left-handed”. Priyanka has gone on record to state how it was emotionally and physically demanding, especially to learn to box as a south paw. Parineeti agrees, “Even before I started to learn badminton, I had to look like and train like an athlete and develop arms and thigh muscles. Besides, I had to have enough stamina and strength to be ready for 12 hours of badminton shoot.”
Undeniably, sports biopics are tonnes of hard work. Sanjay Singh Chouhan, who wrote ‘Paan Singh Tomar’ about the seven-time national steeplechase champion in the 1950s and 1960s, recalls how things were tough. “As it was a period piece — when there were not synthetic tracks but muddy ones, recreating the same and shooting in those environs was fraught with risks. Irrfan was injured and it took nearly two months for him to recover.”
Kumar recalls a similar incident with Priyanka when the boil on her forehead burst while boxing. There were other challenges too. The fact that Priyanka was shooting for other projects meant she had to transform physically more than once; gaining muscle, losing and then gaining it back all over again.
Yet, both critics and audiences are quick to dismiss such films. Even before ‘Saina’ was released, Twitterati began to troll its poster as they felt the service style depicted was more in consonance with tennis, and not badminton. And if viewers are generous, as they were with ‘Bhaag Milkha Bhaag’ that garnered over Rs200 crore, critics can be brutal. Omung Kumar, whose ‘Mary Kom’ did hit the right buttons, reasons, “Just because actors and the directors have gone more than an extra mile to depict a sports saga, we can’t expect viewers to endorse them on that count alone.”
The reason why many sports dramas do not work is not the technique of that particular game or the actors themselves. “As a majority of sports films are about players who are alive, we only get to see the brighter side and never the flip side,” adds Chouhan.
Having said ‘no’ to several such goody-goody sports biopics, he also feels, “Often stars, too, are not ready to fully submerge into the character and want to retain some of their starry aura.” The issue often is not the extent to which the actors won’t go to be the character, because some did go even beyond. Sushant Singh Rajput mastered MS Dhoni’s helicopter shot too. The real issue could be the humdrum that sets in because too many biopics are being made.
Sidhu feels not every sportsperson’s story lends itself to cinematic adaptation. “Not all stories are worth telling and end up being repetitive, even if inspirational, with a similar kind of arc,” he says. Kumar does agree. “If we can make love stories over and over again, why grudge sports biopics?” asks he, who is ready with his next on Fauja Singh, the marathon runner. And here the challenge for the actor would not just be getting the legendary runner’s walking gait right, but also hours and hours of prosthetics. Clearly, it is no cakewalk. Milkha Singh may have gifted Farhan Akhtar his running shoes, but to run like Milkha, Farhan had to shed sweat if not tears. Parineeti, incidentally, has confessed to actually crying on the court during practice sessions. As in real life, so in reel, champions are made and not born.
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