Readers Write In #369: Saina and what do we really want from sports films?

Posted on May 26, 2021

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(by Madan)

Saina, the biopic about Saina Nehwal, has attracted criticism for following the Bollywood playbook on sports films to a T.  The question is, though, what is a sports film supposed to be about? Is there an argument to be made that some critics expect something that sports films by their very nature cannot deliver?

I am weighing in here as an amateur/hobbyist sportsperson (I play tennis).  I have followed both badminton and tennis from childhood and have played badminton too (albeit more at a Dal Gaya Din Ho Gayi Shaam level, hehe). 

There is a reason why singular characters that would interest film aficionados are rare in the real life professional sporting world.  The reason is couched in the number of hours (nearly 26000!) Saina’s coach states as having invested in coaching her.  And that’s when she was already a high ranking junior.  So Saina herself spent a multiple of 26000 hours doing nothing but practicing badminton by the time you first heard of her when she won the Philippines Open. 

That single minded devotion required of professional sportspersons can make them appear otherwise boring as persons simply because they haven’t had the opportunity to spend time on anything else.  They cannot afford to become multi dimensional just to make interesting conversation.  This phenomenon has become more and more pronounced as the sporting world becomes increasingly specialised and demanding.  That is, you are not going to get characters like John McEnroe.  And owing to the prevailing tyranny of niceness, when an eccentric like Nick Kyrgios does turn up in a sport, they are more likely to attract ridicule for it anyway.

Speaking of tennis…while both tennis and badminton are racquet sports, they are vastly different.  For one thing, badminton is played at a frenetic pace.  Pauses between points are virtually non existent and the only breaks are at the halfway mark in games and between games.  Whereas the tennis scoring system assures that the moments between points can acquire their own significance in a tough, high stakes match. The cameras also zoom in on the server and the receiver, so that you can observe their feelings in great detail.  Tennis has more drama, in essence.

For another, badminton is also a poorer sport than tennis and partly because of this lack of drama. You can achieve glory but you may not achieve the same level of wealth or even fame.  Sania Mirza at her peak was pretty much as popular as Saina Nehwal even though she was ‘only’ ranked no. 27 in singles at her peak (I mean, 27 is an awesome ranking all things considered). Those who have won multiple slams ascend to millionaire status and live a life of well earned luxury after retirement. 

And that kind of money also attracts all sorts of people, all sorts of influences to the lives of tennis stars.  That is, it is possible to make a very compelling film about Jennifer Capriati or Andre Agassi (as also about Radek Stepanek, hehe) because their turbulent personal lives offer a rich playground for the filmmaker.  It is more difficult to conjure up the same kind of drama about a star like Saina who did what was asked of her and more at every step to reach the apex of her sport. 

Thus, the problem to some extent is simply that sports champions are incredible, even superhuman at what they do but their brief isn’t to be as interesting as John Milton from Devil’s Advocate or David Greenhill from Guilty As Sin.  If the typical sports film takes a linear path, it is because that is in essence the trajectory of a great sportperson’s career. 

So…why just Bollywood?  It’s not like Miracle or Goal are stupendously devoid of formula and a film like Rush is enlivened more by how interesting James Hunt and Niki Lauda were (harking back to a different, more dangerous time in Formula 1) than by Ron Howard’s direction (not that there was any great danger of that anyway).

And what happens when a film gets deeper into the person behind the sport like Borg v/s McEnroe?  Endless complaints about how Shia LeBouf doesn’t resemble McEnroe, that’s what.  I wonder why high minded critics would make so banal an objection about so brilliantly observed a film but there you go. 

 Maybe the problem then isn’t with sports films being too formulaic but with our expectations from them.  By Bollywood standards, the film Saina does make more of an effort to get into what makes a pro badminton player and a little bit into the tactical intrigue as well.  Aspects which were completely missing from the then epoch making sports film of the noughties –  Chak De India.  Let’s just count our blessings, I guess.