He has 13 Grand Slam titles, and is the recipient of the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna and Arjuna Award. Now, at age 39, Leander Paes, India’s most successful tennis player, is making his debut as a Bollywood actor. He tells us why.
Leander Paes's never-say-die attitude keeps him going even at 39. He lasted the distance at this year’s mixed doubles event at the Wimbledon and earlier this year, won the doubles event at the Australian Open to complete a career Grand Slam. With the Olympics just over a fortnight away, India will hope that he carries the good form to the Games. Getty Images
What makes a tennis star want to be an on-screen hero?
I got my first offer to do a film in 1996, two days after I won the Olympic medal at Atlanta. Ever since I was a boy, I wanted to be an actor; I wanted to entertain people. So many offers came my way, but this is the film I picked — it’s the story of the tough journey of Keshav (his character name in Rajdhani Express), who has always been rebuffed and pushed down. This journey is a metaphor of life.
You could have easily started with a mega-budget film by a big Bollywood director. Why didn’t you opt for that?
I never got to play at Wimbledon until I earned it. I could have asked my friends — directors or those who own big production houses — but I would never want a favour. I’d rather earn it. Big directors and production houses should see the talent in me and choose me. I have always earned respect as a tennis player; I’d like to do the same as an actor.
In sports, you call your own shots. In films, the director does. Was it hard being led by someone else?
Since the time I was a boy, I was always a leader, but I also learnt from many people. Now, I look at myself as a student of acting; this is the medium of the director. In tennis, too, sometime my mixed doubles partner (Martina) Navratilova led, and sometimes I did. Film and tennis are both extensions of my life and relations with people. It’s about how you can lead and be led when needed.
So is acting a career move?
I am approaching acting as a career. It may eventually lead to production. The way I have shaped my tennis career, with a sense of timing and learning, I’m going to bring that to films too. My ability to shed Leander the tennis player and the person, and take on a character brought me the film. There is a great audience out there that recognises multi-talented people.
‘I will always be connected to sports’
Are you putting your hard-earned fame as an athlete at stake by choosing to act?
It might look like I’m wavering in multiple directions, but those who know me know that I’m not scared of anything. I wasn’t scared when I left home at the age of 12 (to train abroad). There was no guarantee that I’d be able to make it as an athlete. For me it’s about living my life my way, choosing my path and, if that in a way can influence anyone, then my job is done.
Do you think you will be able to retain your tennis fan base as an actor?
I’m taking it (acting) seriously. Let’s not forget that I’m getting the opportunity to be an actor because of the brand I have created over the years (as a tennis player). There is a reverence I get as an athlete… there is a certain look in their (his fans’) eyes… there’s so much respect. Now, embarking on an acting career and earning the same respect will be wonderful.
Were you comfortable doing the intimate scenes in the film?
There might be other films down the line where I will have to do even bolder scenes. I’m happy that Sayali Bhagat (co-star) was understanding.
What other project are you working on?
There’s a graphics novel that is being made into a movie. It’s an action-spy thriller — Mission Impossible meets James Bond.
Do you feel a responsibility towards promoting tennis and producing more stars?
Over the last 23 years, I’ve enjoyed playing for the country. Even though my other passion will take up more time, and my time on court will reduce, I will always be connected to sports. I have already helped develop infrastructure for tennis, mentored Davis Cup teams; there will come a time when I will actually coach.
If you’re successful as both a sportsman and an actor, which legacy do you want to leave behind?
I want it to be that of the guy with the heart of a lion (that’s what the name Leander means). People should recognise him for that first and not as athlete or an actor.