Screenwriter-actor-director-producer Amole Gupte is having a busy March. On March 19, he was seen playing the gangster Gaitonde in ‘Mumbai Saga’ and a week later, he’s all warmed up for his next directorial project.
His filmography includes Taare Zameen Par (screenwriter and creative director), Stanley Ka Dabba, Hawa Hawaai and Sniff!!! He has crafted films that feature children. His latest is Saina, a biopic of the former world number one badminton player Saina Nehwal. Parineeti Chopra plays the older Saina, but as Gupte told me during an interview in 2017, it’s Saina’s childhood and her origins that interested him most. Gupte shares more about the making of the sports biopic based on Nehwal’s early days, her family and her journey to becoming a champion.
What made you want to make a film on Saina Nehwal?
I had been following her progress for a while since the 2010 Commonwealth Games. For the next two years, she won many titles. I had been following her lows and highs. Then she became world number one in 2015. What an achievement. Coincidentally, my friend Sujay Jairaj, who is an educationist and badminton aficionado, got the filming rights of her life. So we decided to do this together. We went to Hyderabad, met her and her family.
Is there enough drama in her life to make a movie?
There is enough drama in a world number one's life. There is more drama than some concocted fiction created by Bollywood. The Nehwals are simple people from Haryana who came to Hyderabad when her father Harvir Singh got a transfer. With it Saina got a new beginning. In 2006, when she was 16, she became the Under-19 national champ.
How do you make badminton cinematic?
It is cinematic. The trick is in where you put your camera and what shots and focus you pick. The shuttlecock is the fasting moving object in any sport. It travels four times faster than Shoaib Akhtar’s ‘Rawalpindi Express’ fast ball. So it is important to put all of that into context. Give perspective. This is not the badminton you see in that song ‘dhal gaya din, ho gayi shaam’ in Humjoli (1970). Badminton is an expensive indoor sport. We let the audience buy into the sport via the little Saina, then you build on the story brick-by-brick.
It must have been hard enough, the cast for the lead part, especially as you needed an athletic actress. You had the additional challenge of recasting.
Well, I did have an athletic actress. Shraddha Kapoor was preparing for the role but unfortunately she fell ill. By the time she recovered, she could not stand on set for 12 hours and play badminton. Once she did recover, she had to complete her commitment to other projects, such as Chhichhore. Then she was roped into Street Dancer. So Bhushan Kumar, the producer, got me Parineeti Chopra and I took a leap of faith with the cards in my hand. Parineeta came on board in April 2019 and by early October we were shooting. We wrapped in January 2020 and then COVID struck. Naishaa Kaur Bhatoye, who plays the younger Saina, was ranked number one in Maharashtra in the under-13 category. It was her first time facing a camera. I didn’t cast Naishaa for the likeness to Saina, which is there for sure, but for her skill at the game. When you see a little girl training like that and wielding a racket like that, that’s when the audience will buy into the narrative.
Does the film feature her rivalry with PV Sindhu, her training with Pullela Gopi Chand and her marriage to Parupalli Kashyap, for example?
If I don’t have signed document from people then they are not in the film. I have the family and Kashyap. As for the rest, I have to create the ecosystem to tell the story. I don’t make films about conflict and juice the conflict and emotions. That’s not my style. I am clear about my intention and it’s about honesty and pure emotions.What would you say are the main themes of the film?
It’s an inspirational film about a girl child. The bulls eye — the dart that hits its mark —is that a lower-middle-class family comes together, rallying for their second girl child and makes a world champ out of her. Their sacrifices, the real world they inhabit, the small things which you see on the pores of the skin—the microscopic details—should be fodder enough for a film on such a strong personality like Saina Nehwal. The film does not have too many intentions besides the one that this family did it, which means every family can do it. It can be done with compassion, perseverance and hard work.Saina released in theatres on March 26, 2021.