In Amole Gupte’s Saina Nehwal biopic, it’s expectedly all about badminton. The sport features in nearly all the scenes of the cradle-to-the-present portrait. It begins even before Saina has appeared on the planet. Her mother Usha Rani is a district-level player, and her father Harvir has wielded the racquet too.

Usha Rani is the one who takes the lead in moulding Saina into a champion and the first Indian woman to achieve the top ranking in badminton. Usha Rani pushes, cajoles and even threatens her daughter into mastering the sport, prefiguring the young girl’s later involvement with an even greater taskmaster.

Like Taare Zameen Par, Gupte’s screenplay about an artistically inclined dyslexic boy, and his movie Hawaa Hawaai, about a talented skater, Saina explores the relationship between prodigies and their mentors. Gupte’s depiction of Saina Nehwal’s trailblazing achievements follows the familiar rhythms of the sports biopic, but is at its strongest when it examines her life-altering entanglement with her second coach.

This coach is not identified by name. For reasons that are unclear, Pullela Gopichand, who trained Saina Nehwal to achieve international glory, is depicted by the fictional Rajan (Manav Kaul). Rajan arrives at just the right moment in Saina’s career. Saina (Parineeti Chopra) has been smashing her way to victory, playing an aggressive game and following her mother’s dairy-heavy diet to the last drop.

Rajan changes more than Saina’s eating habits. He replaces her mother as the authority figure in her life. The gruelling training at Rajan’s centre produces results, but it’s never enough for the clinical and frighteningly focused coach.

We have a tendency to see dreams that are fulfilled all too easily, Rajan tells Saina. He shows her difference between preternatural talent and assiduously sculpted brilliance (Champions are not born but made is the motto of the academy he runs is). However, Rajan’s game strategy, which might have provided an ever deeper understanding of his contributions to his protege’s success, remains unexplored.

Parineeti Chopra and Manav Kaul in Saina (2021). Courtesy Front Foot Pictures/Amole Gupte Cinema/T-Series.

Rajan’s preoccupation with discipline and Saina’s wandering attention tear apart the match-winning pair. The tensions between trainer and shuttler, which are based on real-life events, supply a sense of drama to a movie that is in danger of being reduced to a series of fast-moving montages. Piyush Shah’s cinematography and Deepa Bhatia’s editing bring out the zing in this indoor sport, but it soon becomes apparent that the narrative needs to slow down a bit.

Portrayed as a reserved and obedient pupil, Saina finds her voice when Rajan loses interest in her progress. Battling professional failures and injury, Saina overcomes her obstacles to finally emerge as the heroine of a saga scripted by others up until then.

The movie handles this equivalent of a bad divorce with even-handedness and scrupulousness, suggesting that the blame, if any, lies with both parties. Manav Kaul does a first-rate of balancing Rajan’s necessary ruthlessness with his understanding of what it takes for Indians to excel in a game dominated by other countries.

As a sports movie, Saina takes care to highlight the commitment and sacrifices required by players and their families. From the training scenes to recreations of important matches, the movie displays an admirable commitment to making badminton sexy for lay viewers. Parineeti Chopra too is more at ease moving around the court than she is off it. Chopra works up a sweat as an athlete, but is ice-cold in resting mode.

The match scenes are exciting in themselves, which makes Gupte’s decision to thrown in soppy songs and a sweeping background score puzzling. The movie is mercifully free of flag-waving, but the intrusive music reduces the impact of watching the sport on a big screen.

The overwritten script, which includes a voiceover by its subject, still falls short of revealing her inner life. Sports biopics and documentaries often seek to discover the unknowable – the higher force that propels athletes to excellence.

In Saina too, there are efforts to fathom the workings of Saina’s mind. But since the movie is as obsessed with badminton as Saina Nehwal probably is, and is disinterested in any element that will round her off, there are mere glimpses of what she must be like off court. A love song with fellow player and childhood sweetheart Kashyap (Eshan Naqvi) and a handful of scenes with Saina’s badminton buddies are all we get by way of layering.

Eshan Naqvi and Parineeti Chopra in Saina (2021). Courtesy Front Foot Pictures/Amole Gupte Cinema/T-Series.

If valuable lessons were gained from losses in between the victories, they don’t make it to the movie. The monomaniacal approach to mapping Saina’s professional glory diminishes some of its more interesting supporters. Saina’s mother, played with feistiness by Meghna Malik, gets short shrift after her early role in honing Saina’s abilities. Kashyap, modelled on Saina Nehwal’s husband and national-level player Karupalli Kashyap, is similarly reduced to an ardent cheerleader.

Attempts to trace Saina’s prowess to her Haryanvi heritage – stamina and perseverance are in the soil of Haryana, it seems – are neither here nor there. The movie pays warm tribute to the player who put Indian badminton on the world map, but the essence of her brilliance doesn’t leave the bottle.

Saina (2021).

Also read:

Pause, rewind, play: How Saina became the first Indian female badminton star to be ranked world No 1