Lights, Camera, Action… Uppercut

We follow boxer Mary Kom on one of her promotional tours for her upcoming eponymous biopic, and watches how real transforms into reel.

17 August 2014 The Indian Express by Mihir Vasavda

It’s a little less than an hour to go for the first big promo of her movie. Mary Kom is ready in her suite, waiting impatiently for it to begin as she goes through the script that has to be followed during the hour-long function over a quick meal.

Mary checks in at the venue a good three hours before the event; just like she does every time before stepping inside the ring. She is nervous. And she is tired after a long day of promotional events. “Bahut zyada ho raha hai…stress…mentally,” she says, sinking into the sofa in the lamp-lit room.

This has been a testing week for the London Olympics bronze medalist. With the suspense over the trials over next month’s Asian Games and her impending comeback hanging like a sword, Mary is finding it tough to focus on the ‘other’ stuff. Curious, she asks if the dates for the trials have been finalised. Not a word on it yet, you inform her. She shakes her head. “Too much stress,” she repeats.

But tonight, this can wait. A designer cocktail dress, neatly braided hair and a touch of make-up, she is looking very much unlike the Mary we’ve seen and known for all these years. Contrary to her bubbly self, she carefully chooses every word and speaks ever-so-softly.

Eleven floors below, at the dimly-lit lobby, there’s sudden activity. The reel-life Mary Kom has just arrived at the hotel with the rest of her entourage. Unlike the real Mary Kom, who quietly sneaked into the hotel, Priyanka Chopra is greeted with garlands and is quickly whisked into the waiting elevator to her suite. Priyanka, on the other hand, arrives looking rugged. She dons a black track suit and hair is tied in a loose bun, much like Mary while entering the ring for her bout.

It’s quite a role reversal. You make a mental note: Perhaps, that’s how the duo will be for the fortnight leading up to the release of the movie.

Sports biopics have largely been an unexplored genre in Indian cinema. And typical of Bollywood dramas, there’s ample showboating and goofy bits of business. Of the two that were successful, Paan Singh Tomar was more about the dacoit than the sportsman and even though Milkha Singh was the hero of the over-the-top Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, the film’s crux centred more on the brutal era of Partition.

The need to introduce drama into a sportsperson’s story just to ‘connect’ to a larger audience explains the reason why we struggle to understand the inherent drama of sport. There’s a fine line between keeping it real and getting sucked into the demands of reel. In the garb of creative freedom, facts are distorted and the story of an athlete risks being spun into mishmash.

Omung Kumar, the director of the movie, insists they’ve stuck to the incidents as described by Mary in her autobiography without much exaggeration. If true, it’ll be interesting to see if the movie manages to invoke the same emotions as her book does.
Unbreakable is an engaging read, filled with anecdotes and incidents — heart-wrenching and rib-tickling in equal measure — that traces Mary’s roller-coaster journey from being born in abject poverty to becoming one of India’s most successful sportspersons.

Mary is a woman of refreshing candour and her story by itself is so dramatic that it doesn’t really need much peppering. Growing up in difficult conditions, she kept boxing a secret from her family until she won the state championships in 2000, when everyone, including her parents, discovered what she had been up to. Her father urged her to give up. Boxing is too dangerous, he told her; members of her clan disapproved; the boys in her hometown ridiculed her.

However, she held out. For her, sport was a way to get a stable government job and eventually drag her family out of poverty. Thus began her journey from her small town in Manipur with nothing but unbreakable determination to achieving dizzying heights of fame.

The rendezvous with Mary begins with the most obvious question: Does Priyanka look like you? She doesn’t. Priyanka is one head taller than Mary and is less muscular, apart from the most clear and undisguised difference: her features. But Mary won’t say it. “I really did not care much about how she looked. That wasn’t my concern,” the 30-year-old says. “I was more curious to see how Priyanka was in the ring, whether they got the technical parts right and it’s enough they managed to put across the passion and determination I had for the sport.”

The challenge was to infuse Mary’s style of boxing in her absence. Mary was pregnant during the shoot and couldn’t be physically present. But Rob Miller, the sports-action director of the movie, had other ideas. “Since Mary and Priyanka have a fairly big difference in height and natural skills we tried to develop a hybrid style for the film. Plus certain things look more cinematically dramatic,” says Miller, who has also choreographed the sports sequences for Bhaag Milkha Bhaag and Chak de! India.

Miller’s company, ReelSports, brought on board Christy Halbert as Priyanka’s coach during the shoot. Christy was USA women’s boxing team coach at the London Olympics where Mary clinched the bronze as well as during each of the world championships the Indian boxer won. She knew Mary’s style inside-out, having studied her for all these years.

Indian women’s boxing coach Hemlata Bagdwal provided further inputs. A touch of realism was added to the fights by bringing in American amateur boxers Lisa Porter and Jennifer Hamaan, whom Miller describes as ‘Olympic hopefuls’. Mumbai-based coach Krishna Das provided a few upcoming boxers from his academy.

Miller, who helped oversee boxing during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and provided sport’s analysis during the Sydney Games, says the fact that the audience is not as familiar with the technicalities of amateur boxing makes it a big challenge. “But in the end, our job is always to help the director tell a story and translate his vision to the screen,” Miller says.

This is where the director’s ‘creative freedom’ takes over. Masala, as Mary describes. The five-time world champion says she cried twice during the movie and, overall, there isn’t much exaggeration. She is impressed with Priyanka’s southpaw stance and how they’ve done the ‘perfect thing.’ “The only masala is like falling of the opponent and all,” she says. She imitates Priyanka hitting the floor in slow-motion, as shown in the promo. “But that is something for effect,” she adds.

Kumar acknowledges having ‘slightly’ dramatized the boxing sequences and her romantic life for cinematic reasons. “Priyanka has lip-stick during the fights because Mary has it; she sings in the movie because Mary does in real life. We haven’t played around much,” Kumar says.

All through Mary’s career, her husband Onler has been the silent companion, who’s happy being in the background. Onler’s role in Mary’s story is as pivotal as the boxing bit itself.

And here, as Mary’s reel life story chugs on, he continues to stay on the sidelines. Until he breaks his silence. “You included everything from how I kiss Mary to how I hold her to how we make love. That part wasn’t in the script when you read it out to us. All our secrets are out now…I should sue you guys,” he jokes.

Mary couldn’t stop blushing for the rest of the evening. Perhaps, they would have hoped that at least this part of their real life didn’t make it to the reel.

This article was first published in The Indian Express (17 August 2014).
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