The movie ‘Saina’ starts with the Indian badminton star’s most recent international success, at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, where she defeated PV Sindhu to clinch her second gold medal at the Games.
The film shows Parineeti Chopra, playing Saina, preparing for the media interaction after returning to India and thinking of what the headlines would have been had she lost to Sindhu.
Watching the scene, with the many flashbacks, raised my hopes of ‘Saina’ being a movie that would bring out the real essence of what made India’s badminton star Saina Nehwal a champion athlete.
As a journalist, I had seen her go through the same emotions back in 2013-14 when she was looking to get back to her best after an injury and Sindhu had surprised everyone by becoming India’s first female singles player to win a world championship bronze in 2013.
Saina had made it a point to assert her supremacy in the only edition of the Indian Badminton League by beating Sindhu and later spoke about how the headlines in the paper before that match had motivated her.
It was this hunger, to be the best, that had also seen her beat Sindhu in two senior nationals after a career-threatening injury. And that scene in the movie was probably the perfect way to show what winning meant to Saina.
But well begun is just half done and the rest of the movie probably proves why it is so.
Given the fact that ‘Saina’ is a Bollywood movie, one definitely expects the director to take cinematic liberties ‘to make things interesting’. But twisting facts isn’t really the ideal way to do that.
‘Facts’ in Fiction
For example, in the movie, Saina is prodded by Parupalli Kashyap to speak to her coach – only the director can explain why he is called Rajan and not Gopichand – to get her name in the Indian team for the Philippines Open. She then hears her coach giving her little chance to make it to the second round but she is determined to prove him wrong and goes on to become India’s first female player to win such a formidable tournament.
However, the real Saina was the first player to be picked for that leg of the Indian tour as she had made her senior India debut back in 2004, had won the 2005 Asian Satellite event in New Delhi and in March 2006 helped India win a mixed team bronze in the Commonwealth Games after then national champion Aparna Popat suffered an injury.
The way her name is added to the team list in the movie also shows the entire selection process in a bad light.
The other incident that is shown to establish Saina’s grit and never-say-die attitude in the movie is the accident of her mother just before she was scheduled to leave for her first international tournament in 2003 to Czech Republic, which she goes on to win while all the time thinking of her mother in the hospital.
Saina’s mother Usha Rani was hit by a motorcycle and had to be taken to hospital but that was just before her first junior nationals in Guntur and hence no family member could travel with her. The then 12-year-old impressed everyone by reaching the final but lost to eventual champion Krishna Dekaraja 11-0, 11-0.
She needed three more appearances before winning the singles title but the movie tries to portray that she won her junior nationals title in the very first attempt against three-time champion (named Shenaz Rizvi in the movie) and that she even won a game on love against her.
According to the movie, she was training at the Lal Bahadur stadium but by the time she won the junior national crown, she had already started training with Gopichand.
The Move to Bengaluru and More Disregard of Real Life Events
But for me the biggest disregards to facts was shown in the way Saina moves to Bengaluru from Hyderabad after being shown down by her coach (Gopichand), when she had actually gone to reconcile with him following an ankle injury.
The bone of contention between the two is that the coach is unhappy with her personal life and the time she spends on endorsements and hence assigns his assistant Bimbisar Babu to work with her, and that subsequently affects her performance.
It is true that there were issues between Gopichand and Saina Nehwal and Bhaskar Babu had taken charge of her and Kashyap’s training for a brief while. But that was at the start of 2011 and that had only happened after the two wrote to Sports Authority of India requesting to train under the latter following a dressing down from Gopichand over their personal life.
Saina and Gopichand reconciled soon after the news of their differences were reported in the media and the two went on to give Indian badminton its first Olympic medal at London.
When Saina left for Bengaluru in 2014, she was neither injured nor was she out of form. But she was unhappy that Sindhu, who had won her second World Championships medal in Copenhagen, was getting more attention from the coach and wanted more one-to-one attention.
She was upset while returning from the world championships, where she had lost in the quarterfinals, and had announced her decision to move to Bengaluru even before Gopichand had returned to India.
Telling a Story or Story Telling?
Apart from these major factual issues, there are many instances where one wonders whether the director has done his research well.
In the scene before Saina’s mother’s accident, they are shown talking about travelling for the Czech Open. It is never made clear in the movie that it was a junior event and how they were both going together.
Interestingly though, her mother once told a couple of journalists around 2009-10 that she never thought of travelling overseas with her daughter before because she didn’t have a passport.
It is also difficult to understand why the name of Julia Wong was retained in the commentary of the 2006 Philippines Open final but Carolina Marin is changed to ‘Carla Martinez’ during the 2014 Syed Modi final. What is most surprising is that ‘Carla’ is shown as a right-handed player. To add to the melodrama, they have also altered the scores of the match by showing that the 25-23 scoreline in the second game, which saw Saina save two match points before winning the decider, happened at the end of the match.
The movie then seems to be abruptly cut and the epilogue tells us that she ultimately became a world No 1 in April 2015 and returned to the Gopichand Academy in 2017 and married Parupalli Kashyap in December 2018.
The director seemed so focused on the drama and ‘making things interesting’ that the 2010 Commonwealth Games gold, which she won from the brink, the 2008 World junior titles and her 2012 London Olympics achievement are just given a passing mention.
The movie does not speak of her 2015 World championships bronze or has no mention of her knee injury that cut short her Rio Olympics campaign or her struggle to come back and win tournaments ahead of that 2018 CWG triumph, which is where the movie begins.
I am no expert on movie making but the only thing while watching the movie that reminded me constantly of the Saina I knew was the expressions on Parineeti Chopra’s face and the way she managed to copy her mannerisms. But that was probably the only high point for me.
Saina Nehwal has been an inspiration to every aspiring badminton player and even for every Indian sports fan for the sheer magnitude of her achievements. India’s first badminton player to win an Olympic medal at the 2012 London Games became a household name over the last decade and the least one would have expected from a movie on the 31-year-old was that it did justice to the ups and downs of her career and not trivialise some of the most important events in her career under the guise of cinematic liberty.
(Abhijeet Kulkarni has been a journalist for over two decades and has been covering badminton since 2003. He has also written a book on the rise of the sport since the turn of the century titled - The Gopichand Factor)
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