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'Saina' — Movie Review: Film lacks life, merely feels like a documentary

Saina falls a little short of being able to essay the life of this great champion, making it a movie full of fire and inspiration but minimum sass and sizzle.

Saina — Movie Review: Film lacks life, merely feels like a documentary

Sohinee Basu

Updated: 27 March 2021 3:00 PM GMT

It was sometime in the early 2000s when the name Saina Nehwal had first flickered onto our television screens and floated into little, bolded sections, clinging to newspaper corners. So, nearly two decades later when director Amol Gupte decided to make a film based on the life of this Olympic bronze medalist from Hisar, Haryana - the interest naturally piqued. However, Gupte, with the eponymous biopic, Saina, falls a little short of being able to essay the life of this great champion, making it a movie full of fire and inspiration but minimum sass and sizzle.

A little towards the middle of the film, Parineeti Chopra's Saina Nehwal, about to play a deciding game in her match against Julia Wong of Malaysia at the 2006 Philippines Open says - "Dil se nahi, dimaag se khelna hoga." While my heart went in full agreement when she voiced this decision, director Amol Gupte perhaps didn't register this dialogue too well because, with Saina, he puts the onus a lot on the dil of the audience and doesn't cater so much to their dimaag.

Running for a solid 135 minutes, Gupte's Saina strangely does not offer us anything we didn't already know. At some parts of the movie, sitting in an almost deserted theatre, you feel like asking - is this even a movie or a weak attempt at a documentary? The point being, if I was asked to describe the character of Saina in five adjectives - I would struggle, synonyms would claw at me - passionate, gritty, determined, obstinate, feisty...and then silence. Right from the outset, Gupte paints Saina along these unidimensional lines - making her the girl only about badminton with a 'Maar Doongi' motto to swear by.

In many ways, Saina's story will be a reminder of something extremely familiar and closer home. The mother, Usha Rani Nehwal (played by a persistent, melodramatic Meghna Malik), is a former State-level badminton player with serious conviction in her strength as a Jattni. Unsurprisingly, therefore she wants her sherni daughter, Saina to lift the racket like a talwar and fulfill her mother's incomplete, unlived dreams on the court by becoming World No. 1. With an overly-enthusiastic family by her side, Nehwal doesn't have too many societal taboo issues to slay either and she shines in the belief of others in her stamina, speed, strength, skill and spirit - the 5 S's needed for playing badminton, as per the movie.

Gupte also indulges in Saina's love life in the film by showcasing the presence of Parupalli Kashyap (played adequately by Eshan Naqvi) in it. Albeit bordering on silly at times, Kashyap's presence is perhaps to be interpreted more on a symbolic level as the friend-lover-validator figure and the numero uno fan of Saina more than anything else.

Yet, Saina is not a film without its shining moments and in its ample run-time manages to formulaically craft tried-and-tested moments of glory that are ripped right out of the book called: How To Make A Sports Bio-Pic in Bollywood. So, the heart does surge when you see a young Saina coming and telling her coach Rajen (hoots please for an impeccable Manav Kaul who plays the role of Pullela Gopichand much like Kabir Khan from Chak De! India ) that she wants to break the wall of China (indicating the Chinese domination in badminton!)

'Saina' movie poster

Ambition in her eyes, faith in herself and a raging dream to be World No. 1, she heads off to the Philippines to do the impossible and returns glorious, beaming, having done so. Amaal Malik also helps over here with his music, conjuring a decent set of potential earworm tracks, led by Malik's Parinda and Shreya Ghoshal's melodious Chal Wahin Chale, acting as perfect accompaniments in the rousing moments of the film.

The climactic moment of the film arrives when Saina, having returned from a major injury scare, squares off against Carla Martinez of Spain (oops, you must know this is none other than Carolina Marin) at the 2015 Syed Modi International Championship. Facing a crucial stage in the match, there is a rapid montage of flashback scenes when Saina remembers and realizes the love and respect people have for her and uses the power of that energy surge to edge past Martinez and script history for India.

Parineeti Chopra hogs the limelight but finds herself blinded at times by its glare. Essaying the role of the former World No. 1 is no easy task but at least, Chopra, the gutsy performer that she is, wields the racket in style and goes for the winner. Albeit a tad clumsy in parts but Chopra can be forgiven for her passionate attempt at playing Saina Nehwal.

It is debutant Naishaa Kaur Bhatoye, as the young Saina, that actually stuns in the film. Sans too many dialogues, Naishaa, a budding badminton player and an actual Nehwal-lookalike is one to watch out for in the movie. Silent but brooding eyes, lithe steps, nimble footwork and powerful smashes and Naishaa looks ready to spell trouble for her opponents in the coming years.

However, Saina comfortably fits into the mould of most other sports bio-pics being churned out in Bollywood and loses her extraordinary factor in the process. It's difficult to ignore the pattern and the tropes as Saina's career is played out - peppered with injuries and generously seasoned with success, offering only a half-baked end product ultimately.

Although the shuttlecocks fly across the net, engaged in an agile, nimble on-screen rally, Amol Gupte's Saina serves well only to lure us into the tell-tale deception and leaves us in anticipation for something more. Yet, Gupte needs to be lauded for taking badminton from the friendly backyards to the insanely competitive indoor courts where the fastest racket sport is played. While a lot of character might not blot out of Saina, but her boorish mental strength and indomitable fighting spirit, Jattni style, if I may, is what will linger with you, reminding us time and again of the true Champion she continues to be.

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