‘Saina’ Review: Parineeti Chopra’s shuttle hits the net

Amole Gupte’s Saina is an inconsistent film which made me wonder, can Parineeti Chopra not perform without a good director?

Saina begins with Parineeti Chopra (as Saina Nehwal) in focus at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, Australia. We know it’s going to be a gold for Nehwal, so writer-director Amole Gupte doesn’t waste too much time on it. Cut to the next scene, Saina is at a press conference where she narrates how she got here. “Meri mummy ka khoon daudta hai mujh mein,” is what she says and Gupte takes us to Saina’s childhood, where it all began.

Sports biopics in India aren’t really done well. But a handful of them – Dangal, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, Mary Kom, Chak De! India – have gotten it right and other directors simply follow the same template that these films set. An underprivileged child has it in them to be the next best thing, there are complications and yet they get through them, once at the peak of their career, ego comes into play, there’s a downfall and then a final rise, after which the end credits roll. I don’t see any wrong in following this template, but there needs to be more than surface level information in a film. A film cannot be written around the athlete’s Wikipedia page.

Saina Nehwal’s life is nothing short of inspiring. She’s been the best badminton player in the world, is the only Indian, among women and men to have 24 titles to her name. But Gupte’s film loiters too much on the surface and what we get is a clumsy, inconsistent depiction of the hardships and struggles of the former badminton world No. 1. I’m not saying that the film is all bad, no. It has its moments to shine, but through most of it, for the lack of a better word, the film is dry. We never get to know what it actually took for Saina to become Saina Nehwal. We see her mother, Usha Rani Nehwal (Meghna Malik), running after Saina (the child and adult) with glasses of milk but what goes into this process emotionally isn’t ventured into. While I understand that some of our great athletes were first forced into their respective sport by their parents, Saina never questions if little Saina actually wanted this. When she grows up, she remarks, “badminton ke alawa kabhi kuch kia hi nahi.” But did she want to? I guess we’ll never know.

Nehwal’s biopic, like every other sports biopic, alternates between match sequences and dramatic scenes at home. Credits to editor Deepa Bhatia for editing the match scenes so crisply. I don’t know anything about the technicalities of the sport, but it was a delight to watch Parineeti Chopra play badminton on screen. Bhatia cleverly hides all of Chopra’s faults as a player. But then we’re taken to the emotional scenes which are nothing but forced. No dialogue, no setting will make you shed a tear. Gupte’s forte, if you’re not yet aware, is films about children, for children. With Saina he takes a big risk, and doesn’t really succeed. The part where Saina is a child, he does really well. When she grows up, moves to Bengaluru and her new coach introduces her to children who look up to Saina Nehwal, you see Gupte’s spark. But for most of the film, it’s absent. Gupte never dares to take the plunge. He doesn’t even try to understand the major complexities that may have been a part of Saina’s upbringing – her relationship with her mother, her then boyfriend and now husband and most importantly, her split with her coach, Pullela Gopichand.

I never thought I’d say something like this, but I felt the lack of Shraddha Kapoor while watching Saina.

We see the mother being Saina’s biggest cheerleader, but that’s literally about it, and the same with Kashyap (her now husband). The mother does get more scenes and depth than Kashyap, but even then it’s all just surface level. We don’t see the hurt the mother may have felt when Saina won her first silver after a series of golds. Neither do we see what Saina may have felt. Meghna Malik who plays Saina’s mother has been reduced to a caricature. Her performance shows potential but the writing of the character is too weak to give her moments to shine.

Saina’s infamous fallout with Pullela Gopichand was one of the biggest controversies of her career. She went on to become the best player in the world without the coach who made her capable enough to get up there. Allegedly it happened because of Nehwal’s insecurities concerning PV Sindhu, who Gopichand was also mentoring. Gupte’s film isn’t bold enough to talk about this. Instead he shows a fallout between Saina (Chopra) and her onscreen coach, Rajan (Manav Kaul) because his academy doesn’t have space for someone who wants to sell soap bars and olive oil instead of playing badminton. Manav Kaul does a great job as the coach, but again, only as much as the writing allows him to.

Including Saina Parineeti Chopra has had three releases this month. While she failed terribly in The Girl On The Train, and gave her career best performance in Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar, her stint in and as Saina rests somewhere between the two. She’s good when she’s playing (mainly because of the editing), but she’s not convincing as Saina Nehwal.And for some reasons, she’s always angry. There are moments where you see Chopra trying real hard, but somehow, her performance never delivers. It’s like playing badminton with perfect stokes and yet, every time the net comes in the way of the shuttlecock. Her performance in emotional moments is very inconsistent, as is the size of her mole. Having said that, the mole could’ve been fixed with a better makeup artist, but the performance would’ve stayed the same. Chopra’s act made me wonder how dependent is she on her director to be able to give a performance as she did in SAPF. I never thought I’d say something like this, but I felt the lack of Shraddha Kapoor while watching Saina.

The biggest challenge a sports biopic faces is that it has to be perfect, not just because it has to be, but mainly because it will probably never be made again. There probably will be another champion emerging in the same sport, even if it’s many years down the line. Amole Gupte’s Saina and Saina Nehwal, the iconic athlete who put India on the global map, will bear the burden of this.

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