Break Point review: Mahesh Bhupathi-Leander Paes' ZEE5 show is irresistibly compelling despite Tiwaris' bland direction

  • Break Point review: Mahesh Bhupathi and Leander Paes' incredibly compelling story makes up for Ashwiny Iyer and Nitesh Tiwari's clunky direction. The show is available on ZEE5.
Break Point review: Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi's incredible story makes up for the lacklustre direction.
Break Point review: Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi's incredible story makes up for the lacklustre direction.
Updated on Oct 01, 2021 12:07 PM IST
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Break Point
Directors - Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari, Nitesh Tiwari

Few sporting spectacles can match the fever-dream intensity of witnessing Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi play Davis Cup for India. It’s like watching an opera; a war-dance; an epic rap battle. In many ways, it’s like watching an expertly-written movie, with a three-act structure and carefully thought-out emotional beats.

At Delhi’s RK Khanna Tennis Stadium, there would always be a ‘shaadi band’ in the stands during India’s Davis Cup ties. A man would give them cues to begin playing every time India clinched an important break, or won a set. But on Saturdays, when Bhupathi and Paes strode onto centre court with the sole purpose of demolishing their opponents in the doubles rubber, the cue-giving man was rendered obsolete. At crucial junctures in the match, Leander would assume the responsibility of personally riling the crowd up. He’d look the ‘shaadi band’ directly in the eye, and with the same glare that could kill his opponents' spirit, get them all charged up. If national pride weren’t on the line, it would almost be funny.

The fans would begin chanting their names, the Chak De! India title track would play during changeovers, and slowly but surely, the opposition would crumble under the combined pressure of the insane atmosphere and the virtually unbeatable pair in front of them; Paes nearly impossible to pass at the net and Bhupathi pounding backhand returns from the ad court. 

So it’s a bit odd that Break Point, the seven-part ZEE5 documentary series about the tennis icons' complicated relationship, doesn’t really rely on match footage to do the heavy lifting.

Watch the Break Point trailer here:

Directed by husband-wife pair Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari and Nitesh Tiwari — the filmmakers behind sports dramas such as Panga and Dangal — Break Point is a rather slapdash attempt at documenting the incredible story of perhaps the greatest ‘what if’ scenario in the history of Indian tennis. 

Bhupathi and Paes are by far the most celebrated doubles pair that the country has ever produced, but their success story as a team was cut short almost immediately after they first started playing together, thanks to growing resentment, inflated egos, and a woman. Now armed with the benefit of hindsight, both players admit that external noise caused the biggest problems between them, and had they been left alone, they’d probably have gotten along better.

Success, as the Australian player Todd Woodbridge speculates in the series, really affected their relationship. Paes never misses an opportunity to remind viewers that he sacrificed a lot to play with Bhupathi, including money. After repeating for the third time that he slashed his endorsement deals to ensure that Bhupathi got paid a five times higher amount, he says off-handedly, “A few million dollars isn’t going to change my life.”

It’s no doubt that Paes comes off as the more calculating of the two in Break Point, which is ironic, because crowds would always be attracted to his flashy playing style over Bhupathi’s percentage tennis in real life. Also, it’s difficult to relate with a man after hearing him make statements like the one I just mentioned, but even in his pieces to camera, his stories seem to have a rehearsed quality. He peppers his speech with dramatic pauses, and appears to be creating a narrative around not just himself but also the several incidents that Break Point litigates. Bhupathi’s no-nonsense playing style, meanwhile, is reflected in his on-camera demeanour.

For instance, he admits in one scene to always having behaved emotionally when it came to Paes. Partnering up with him after they’d broken up once already, he says, was the ‘dumbest’ decision of his life. Paes doesn’t hold back either. On more than one occasion, he accuses Bhupathi of having abandoned him, and routinely lists the compromises he made to ensure that they stayed together.

While most people would be aware of the broad strokes of their story, it’s surprising to learn just how early in their career those differences first emerged. They won most of their majors after they stopped being on talking terms. As Paes says about 1999, “It was our worst year in terms of communication but our best year in terms of performance.”

Leander Paes on court, in a publicity still for Break Point.
Leander Paes on court, in a publicity still for Break Point.

There are a couple of genuinely shocking revelations as well. An attempt to mediate talks between them failed spectacularly when Paes accused Bhupathi of hitting on his girlfriend, and many years later, Paes suggested that someone in the Bhupathi camp spun false stories in the press about him having thrown the bronze medal match at the Athens Olympics because he didn’t want Bhupathi to become an Olympic medalist like him.

In a way, their inherent Indian-ness caused the biggest problems of them all. While The Woodies — Woodbridge and his partner Mark Woodforde — freely admit in the show that spending time apart from each other off the court was the key to their long partnership, Bhupathi, and Paes to an even greater degree, would insist that they’re brothers. To make matters worse, they got their parents involved in their careers, which created parallel rifts that neither of them was equipped to deal with.

Jealousy, betrayal, anger… Break Point works on the strength of the irresistibly compelling story at its centre, the impressive momentum of the narrative, and the refreshing candour of the subjects. But the filmmaking could’ve certainly been put through some suicide drills. The Tiwaris have assembled an impressive array of talking heads that range from Amitabh Bachchan to Sania Mirza, but their overuse of fake news headlines and period-inaccurate stock footage dampens the experience.

It’s clear how much better episode four is than the three that came before, simply on the strength of the archival footage that they’ve managed to source. Episode seven — by far the best of the lot — is edited with the buttery perfection of a Leander Paes finesse shot. It makes you wonder why the rest of the series is cut so clunkily, with the Tiwaris stitching together stories from separate interviews.

We aren’t here to comment on the journalistic integrity of the operation — it’ll open a can of worms that we simply do not have the bandwidth to deal with this far into the review — but the unremarkable framing, the glaringly artificial chroma backgrounds, and the unintentionally funny concluding scene had no place here. Instead, the filmmakers could’ve focussed on Paes and Bhupathi’s volatile relationship with the All India Tennis Association, and their record-setting run at the Davis Cup — both of which are almost entirely ignored.

Also read: Borg McEnroe movie review: Shia LaBeouf redeems himself in a Song of Ice and Fire

Tennis is a lonely sport; most players have nobody but their opponents for company. It’s a tricky situation to be in, because you could be required to beat your best buddy on any given day. It’s a sport — like most sports — that helps forge bonds, but like the recent Netflix documentary about Mardy Fish made clear, the ruthlessness required in competition at that level can also destroy lifelong friendships. Had it not been for tennis, Bhupathi and Paes probably wouldn’t have survived in the same room together, let alone on a court. And that's so interesting. Their story deserved far better. 

Ironically for a show called break point, the filmmakers don’t give it their best shot.

Follow @htshowbiz for more
The author tweets @RohanNaahar

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Saturday, December 04, 2021