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HindustanTimes Sun,21 Sep 2014

The winner's edge: Why don't we have more sports films with female leads?

Nivedita Mishra, Hindustan Times  New Delhi, July 26, 2014
First Published: 13:09 IST(26/7/2014) | Last Updated: 15:49 IST(26/7/2014)

It isn't everyday that one gets to see a Bollywood actor getting into the skin of the character, let alone roles centred around sporting icons, given the sheer physicality it demands. Yes, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (2013) has indeed changed the rules of the game, but such films and dedicated actors are few and far between.

First Trailer: Priyanka Chopra in and as Mary Kom

But glamour girl Priyanka Chopra, playing a boxer in the new biopic on Olympian Mary Kom that is making all the right noises, looks as convincing as it gets. A muscular physique, complete with rippling muscles with an attitude to match, this one is a clear winner; a far cry from her svelte celeb avatar. Her tweet said as much:
Heart. Blood. Sweat. Soul. I've given it my all. Over to you guys now!

Two years of rigorous training resulted in this stunning makeover. What the final product would be like, we'll have to wait and watch. For the moment, PC has a winner on her hands.

But how often does Indian cinema (Hollywood fares much better though) give us movies on sporting icons? And how often have we seen women in such titular roles? Not many, sadly.

Million Dollar Baby

Million Dollar Baby

The first thing that strikes you seeing PC's Mary Kom promos is the Hollywood hit and multiple Oscar winner, Million Dollar Baby. The 2004 sports film had a kickass Hilary Swank playing the role of a lifetime. Under the able guidance of veteran Clint Eastwood, Swank put up one of the most inspired performances we've seen in recent times. Playing an amateur boxer from white trash family with a dream of becoming a professional, Swank goes on to win many bouts in the welterweight category till a fatal punch cripples her and does her in.

Chak De! India

Chak De! India

In the Indian collective consciousness, however, it is the 2007 hit Chak De! India that revolutionised sports film genre. With superstar Shah Rukh Khan as lone star and an unusual story line, it was a risky proportion.

The story revolved around a disgraced hockey player of the Indian national team who takes it upon himself to train India women's national hockey team in a bid to win the women hockey world cup and, thereby, reclaim his lost honour. It was loosely based on the story of Indian national hockey team's goalkeeper Mir Ranjan Negi, who had to face brickbats and intense criticism after India's humiliating 1-7 loss to Pakistan in the finals of 1982 Asian Games.

Also read: Chak De! India goes to Oscar library

Getting the story right was the least of the film's problems. The biggest challenge remained getting its cast right. Shah Rukh Khan as coach Kabir Khan was a perfect choice. It helped that Shah Rukh had been a hockey player in his college days but picking up the stick after so long and actually playing to act meant that he was left with hamstring injury before the film's shooting wrapped up.

The rest of the cast involved a gang of unknown faces who had to play hockey onscreen and act. Making a sportsperson act is to risk a wooden performance and expecting an actor to play a sportsperson is akin to making a mockery of a performance. Shimit Amin, the director of the film, got the girls to undergo a strenuous regimen of learning the basics of the game, acting lessons and being under diet as part of a training camp of four months.

The cast had some girls who were hockey players (Chitrashi, Sandia, and Raynia) while the rest were mostly first-time actors. Tough task by any stretch of imagination! However, the result was every bit rewarding. The film remains one of the best sports films made in India.

Bend It Like Beckham
Bend it Like Beckham

Let's go back a few more years and recall British director Gurinder Chadda's Bend It Like Beckham. It wasn't exactly a sports film as it had multiculturalism and feminism as its central message. The film, nonetheless, was gift-wrapped as a sports film. It had British actors Parminder Nagra and Keira Knightley playing football players with shrill mothers at home who objected to their passion for the game.

Gurinder Chadha had to put her lead actors, chiefly Parminder Nagra, through a rigorous training schedule of 10 weeks with nine-hours-a-day workout regimen! Nagra had to learn to quite literally 'bend it like Beckham' which she did and how.

Nadia

Nadia

In 1984, a biopic called Nadia was made especially for television in America on the legendary Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci. The 14-year-old Nadia who wowed the world at 1976 Montreal Summer Olympics, clocking a perfect 10 for her Uneven Bars performance and went on to win several gold medals, remains one of the most iconic sportspersons the world has seen.

The film was a reverting tale of a six-year-old Romanian girl who gets picked up by ambitious and domineering gymnastics coach Bela Karolyi and goes on to create history. Nadia was celebrated for her clean technique, her original skill and her cool demeanour.

Her personality, skill and poise were perfectly brought to life by stunning performances by actors Leslie Weiner as young Nadia Comaneci and Johann Carlo as older Nadia.

Other notable mentions to this list include Girlfight featuring Michelle Rodrigues and Run for the Dream: The Gail Devers Story, another TV series made in 1996 on US Olympic great Gail Devers. Closer home, Rani Mukerji came in much praise for playing a cricketer in Dil Bole Hadippa though the film sank without a trace. More recently, Sonakshi Sinha put on the boxing gloves in Holiday for a scene. But that was all there was to it.

The first look and teaser of Priyanka Chopra's Mary Kom look promising. It remains to be seen if the film itself lives up to its initial impact. Till then, more power to team Mary Kom.

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