Saina Nehwal’s biopic, Saina (2021), directed by Amole Gupte, was released on Amazon Prime earlier this year. The film fails to capture the struggle and toil of the badminton genius. Saina tries to de-trivialize badminton from a picnic sport to one that requires serious disciplinary training. However, it does this by leaning into the patriarchal order that structures the sport. According to this film, Saina, “the daughter of India,” is also the only daughter of India.

I first met Saina at the Krishna Khaitan Memorial, All India Junior Badminton National Ranking Tournament in 2003. The enormous stadium in Chennai accommodated more than twelve wooden courts and had a vast circular gallery. I was representing the West Bengal team participating in the Under-13 age group. I distinctly remember sitting in the gallery among players from different states, their parents, and coaches and being mesmerized by the cynosure of the tournament — the iconic giant slayer from Andhra Pradesh, Saina Nehwal. She was already a celebrity by the time she was fifteen. “She plays like a man!” I often heard my coaches and friends comment after one of her powerful smashes. Were they being misogynist, sexist? Were they politically incorrect? Although I stopped competing professionally in 2015, everything is still the same since omnipresent macro-structures of oppression like patriarchy, cannot be undermined overnight.

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Saina traces the growth of the character from childhood to adolescent fame. The off-court dynamic between Saina and her passionate but overbearing mother is wonderfully captured in the film. Saina’s dominating mother, Usha Rani Nehwal (played by Meghna Malik), violently coerces her tween daughter to achieve nothing less than the gold medal on every occasion. However, this should not appear toxic to Indian audiences since, culturally, people process toxicity differently. Saina’s equally supporting father takes a loan from his office to buy expensive barrels of YONEX shuttlecocks for his daughter’s practice. The film repeatedly reminds its audience that badminton is an expensive sport for a middle-class family.

In Saina, the protagonist’s transformation into greatness unfurls in an almost exclusively male space: the badminton academy. Saina is supervised by male coaches and trains with her male friends. Where are the other women in the academy? Spatial discrimination is also gendered discrimination against women. In the early 2000s, the badminton sporting network throughout the country, including clubs, associations, and academies, was toxic, nepotistic, sexist, misogynist, communalist, abusive, homophobic, and ableist. In Saina, this is evident in the exchange between Usha Rani and her husband, Harvir Singh, on the night of the prize distribution. Usha Rani tells her husband: “Laathi ka sahara dongey nah toh umar bhar langrate langrate chalegi yeh” (“Lend her a shoulder and you will cripple her for life”). Giving one’s daughter support, in Saina, is the equivalent of disabling her for life.

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Saina’s coding of badminton spaces as exclusively male plays into its attempt to de-trivialize what is otherwise a picnic sport. Ranjith Reddy, as Coach Meru, lightheartedly observes that the technical knowledge of badminton, unlike football or cricket, is mainly unknown to the public. The public reception of badminton being a juvenile, outdoor sport stems from the melodramatic song “Dhal gaya din ho gayi shyam, jaane do jaana hai” in the 1970 Bollywood film Humjoli. The song depicts Jeetendra and Leena Chandavarkar aimlessly capering about knocking a shuttlecock while singing the song to delay their moment of departure. The trivialization of badminton in the song’s histrionic depiction is representative of Bollywood’s engagement with the sport. Amol Gupte’s Saina is a step towards breaking this mold.

Saina (2021)

However, the lack of performative realism displayed in badminton matches, is disappointing. Saina fails to dramatize badminton — a highly specialized and technical sport — visually. Teng Bee ‘s 2018 Malaysian biopic Lee Chong Wei, depicting the life of its eponymous protagonist, is a good example of what a film on the fastest racquet sport in the world can look like. Unlike films on cricket, football, or hockey, where every single delivery is neatly orchestrated and captured by multiple cameras, Saina fails to capture the on-court drama — the sweat, the agitation, the nervousness, the moment when time slows down at match point.

Saina is also riddled with sporting inaccuracies. In the film’s opening scene, we hear the comparison between Shoaib Akhtar’s bowling speed (161 kmph) and Malaysia’s Tan Boon Hoeng’s smashing speed (493 kmph). Hoeng recorded that speed in 2013 for the Guinness World Record, but not in an official match. Speedometers and high-speed cameras recorded the astounding speed in a controlled atmosphere over multiple tries. It is almost impossible to generate 493 kmph in an official match due to wind velocity, stamina, endurance, angle of the moving shuttle, and other constraints. However, in 2017, the highest speed in an official match was recorded at 426 kmph by the Danish player Mads Pieler Kolding. As a film aimed at an audience of badminton fans, it is disappointingly under researched.

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Instead of focusing on the highly complex dramatization of sportive conflict, Saina is more invested in representing banal martial propaganda. Saina, “the daughter of India,” is turned into a destructive warrior. The performance of martial masculinity emerges vividly as her racquet is often referred to as a “sword.” She never defeats her opponents — she demolishes them! This analogous flapdoodle between a racquet and a sword, a player and a warrior, based on a player’s regional martial identity, is frankly facile and shallow. Laws of badminton (or any sport) transcend regional and religious identities; socio-cultural ideologies cannot define them. Coach Meru mentions the “5 Ss” that fuel a player: “Stamina, speed, strength, skill, and spirit.” One does not necessarily play badminton differently or better because one identifies oneself as a martial Haryanvi “jatt.” Discipline, training, practice, and longing forge a champion.

Saina pulls from a deeply flawed martial race discourse. Saina’s pregnant mother identifies herself as a jatt woman who is naturally headstrong, adamant, resilient, and warrior-like. The film foregrounds Saina’s unyielding stubbornness and destructive force as inherited from her mother’s womb (“kok”). Usha Rani tells Saina that speed is in her DNA. She is born martial! On her first day at the Lal Bahadur Shastri Stadium in Hyderabad, the head coach refers to Saina as Rani Rudrama Devi, the female monarch of the 13th-century Kakatiya dynasty. According to popular belief, Rani Rudrama Devi embraced an authoritarian or manly gender expression to legitimize her female rule. If a sport is a war where one’s martial identity (Sikhs, Rajputs, or Gurkhas) gives one an advantage over others, then “effete” Bengalis (or other non-martial races) should never have any sporting glory. Moreover, a racquet is not a sword because a sword is used in hand-to-hand combat where it is deployed like a melee or a handheld weapon, and badminton is not a close-quarter body-contact sport. Therefore, this racquet-sword analogy that causally disturbs the entire film by transforming the sport into warfare is spurious.

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Saina is an important film that not only acknowledges the specialist status of badminton in the world, but also hints at the urgent investment in better infrastructures, more media coverage and sponsorship to create more world-renowned athletes like Saina. However, the film’s attempt to draw more infrastructural attention is framed within its underwhelming performative realism and flawed martial gender politics.

★ 1/2

Author: Sourav Chatterjee

Sourav is a PhD candidate at the MESAAS, Columbia University, NYC.

Saina (2021) Links: IMDb, Wikipedia

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