That one-minute teaser induced goosebumps. Your craft brought a person to life…
Honestly, it’s not my craft, but my love, admiration, and devotion for Saina. I still remember the time when she became World No 1, which was when I first thought of making a film to celebrate Saina and bring her into the lives of all Indians.
This is the first time you are directing a biopic. What are the pressures of making one?
You are right about the pressure. But, if you see, actually, I only make biopics. There are 100 Ishaans, who I have put into one Ishaan for ‘Taare Zameen Par’. It’s like putting a magnifying glass on the skin of the character which is what I have done for Ishaan, Stanley, Waghmare, or the little Sniff. I have used the same magnifying glass for Saina too.
I wanted to show how alike you and me is this person. But this person became world No 1 and there has to be some magic potion, she’s had. So, I was in search of that magic potion. I found it.
It’s her spirit, and her mother’s, father’s, and her coach’s spirit. You can say, it’s all in one pot, which is bubbling and you have to just get that skin, her skin on the realm of the national consciousness. Here’s a girl child, who’s the Tigress of India. We are celebrating her; beyond that I have no interest.
Apart from that, I really pay attention to the little things. I wasn’t really pressurised in a way that I had to hurry. Once you pay attention to the little things which matter, everything else falls in place and the same applies for filmmaking too.
I have a senior partner, Deepa Bhatia, who’s my wife of 25 years. She’s the uncredited partner and I feel terribly bad because she has co-helmed Saina through the ups and downs and we both have taken the dive together. At this stage, I need to assert that not behind every man, stands a woman. It is because the woman stands tall that every man like me can brag (smiles).
How much was Saina Nehwal involved in making the film? Was she there during the shoot?
Not at all. She has bigger accomplishments to go for. She’s not celebrating her life or anything. We met once in December 2015, after she beat Carolina Marin in the Dubai quarterfinals. I remember meeting her in the rehab as she was unwell with a knee and ankle problem. She was so happy that I was doing this. She said, “Yes, you can really look into my life”. I met her very few times after that. It was not like some active research was happening; we both are really candid. I didn’t sit with the files and books. The questions that were asked were felt, the answers were also as honest and felt.
And her parents were also extremely supportive; they are very simple and down-to-earth. They live in a four-storey bungalow in a gated community, but they don’t have a servant in the house. Everybody’s just rallying because the only source of joy for them is badminton. Everything else is not important. They are so spartan in their outlook of life!
How different was your approach in making a biopic and a sports film as compared to the kids-oriented films you’re known to make?
The approach will be the same because the pen is going to be the same; the heart and mind are in balance and are not going to shift according to the business propositions of the film world. Because I’m not in it for that.
I had this dying need to make a film about Saina, so we started off. But otherwise there is no special approach except for badminton, which has to be authentic. Everybody makes biopics but then it is about human stories. But here along with the human story, I see the authenticity of the badminton, which I attribute to the golden coach who runs the academy.
And I found a badminton boy to play Kashyap, Saina’s lover who she later marries. He’s a Maharashtra State badminton champion twice in a row and was coaching Shraddha (Kapoor) earlier.
I felt the need to cast him as Kashyap because where else will I get such an amazing badminton player? The little Saina is Indian number one doubles and India number three singles. She can’t go wrong in badminton. If you’re making a film about a badminton champion, the least you have to be careful about is that you don’t mess it up. That I truly owe to the badminton community; otherwise they’ll slap me.
What was the kind of emotional journey you went through during the making?
Emotion is part of cinema, if not the experience. It is not about the mise-en-scène, that how your camera craftily captures it, but rather what it captures. If pure emotion filters into your film, then that is equally as lasting as an experience in cinema.
I’m not forcing myself to bring in the emotions this time, like measuring the quantity of one emotion and then exaggerating it. That’s not the intention. The intention is that it should finish that emotion, when it should finish. You should not extend it to buy the tears of your audience. You don’t have to work your way into the audience’s heart and steal their tears, that’s not good karma.
Saina was announced way back in 2017. It was initially finalised with Shraddha Kapoor. Parineeti walked in later…
It was just a quirk of fate. While Shraddha was shooting with us for the first two days–all prepped up to play Saina–she got dengue. And with that she went deep down and was in recovery for a month. Because this is a sports film, she can’t come and do some emotional scenes, she has to play the sport.
So, dengue took the wind out of her, and after that she had to shoot for ‘Chhichore; because they had permission to shoot in the IIT campus only during Diwali holidays.
After that there was another quirk of fate where my producer, Mr Bhushan Kumar was producing a bigger film that time ‘Street Dancer’. So, he brought Shraddha in with Varun Dhawan in the film. And he gave me Parineeti Chopra. So, it’s a win win for everybody–Shraddha, me, Mr Bhushan Kumar, and Parineeti Chopra.
There was no feud; because I am not active on social media and don’t normally talk too much, hence the curiosity. Now I have to honour my producer by giving these interviews but I don’t really, really like to talk. It’s tiring for me. I have to say, it’s not a clarification.
How was it working with Parineeti?
Wonderful! She’s a fabulous actor. No actor could have given 15 years of life like Saina has given to the sport in order to be the ‘Saina Nehwal’ for a biopic. Only Saina can play that role, with her badminton. But who can play her with alacrity, is a clever actor who will never get caught.
Did you have to make changes in the script too?
No. But you give me one more day, I’ll change the script because it can never be frozen and locked. There’s always something or the other to make it better; nothing is sacrosanct.
Bollywood has a newfound obsession with biopics. Do you think we do justice to the personalities through them?
I can’t talk about the world. I can only say one thing: the reason why everybody is going towards making biopics is because we are looking for heroes; we want to be inspired. The sacrifices of a soldier, who gives his life for the nation or a sports person who extends herself for the nation, are examples to be followed.
One biopic which really inspired you…
Chariots of Fire; the music track by Vangelis remains evergreen.
A personality on whom you’d like to make a biopic next?
I would like to make a biopic on Guru Dutt on his life and death.
One quality of Saina, which will stay with you…
She’s the ultimate icon of perseverance, spirit, and strength. There’s a thing here to learn for all Indians, who are so into glamour and self-conscious perception. Learn from such a simple family who put their daughter out as world No 1. This is a special person and the Tigress of India; I love her to death. My wife Deepa and I have put our life into it. Just like Partho, Saina is our child.