How An American Filmmaker Helped Spruce Up Indian Sports Flicks
Rob Miller took great pride in sweating the small stuff — not the beads of nervous perspiration on his forehead while planning a shoot, but the minute attention to detail that Western productions are known for. Back home in Los Angeles and in Hollywood, they called it professionalism.
Then Hindi movies happened to him.
The American, who manages ReelSports, helps choreograph sports sequences in Indian movies. He was on the sets of Chak De! India in Australia, his debut Hindi film project, when the scene needed a real-time audience in the stands. Half an hour before the shoot was to begin, the stadium was empty. Miller began to wonder where he'd get 5,000 "balloon people" — inflated plastic models used to simulate crowds in sports movies — from. But the line producer, an Indian, calmly told him that he would get his full stand when Shah Rukh Khan fetched up. "With all due respect to SRK, we were in Australia!" the sports action director thought. "But the moment Khan entered, some 4,000 people filed in! They couldn't even see him all the time. He would step out and wave in their direction every hour and that was enough to get all our crowd shots canned. I'd started by thinking how everything to the last man in a frame needs to be planned months in advance. I'd never been so wrong. By the end of it, I knew filming Indian movies would be a bit of a circus, but it all comes together beautifully," Miller says. Since then, he has helped shoot sport sequences for seven Bollywood movies, including Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, Dil Bole Hadippa, Patiala House and Student of the Year.
Given that Bollywood's brought to life the stories of Milkha Singh, Paan Singh Tomar and now MC Mary Kom, the sport movie genre is reflecting the country's tryst with success on the field — in the last five years, India has won a cricket World Cup and doubled its tally of Olympic medals.
MS Dhoni's Cup-winning six two years ago, though, was preceded by Aamir Khan's twin hits on the big screen — as Sunny in Awwal Number, an adorably amateurish 1990s film, and as Bhuvan in Lagaan, where the fictional cricket could be tweaked any way since it was a period narrative about natives learning the colonial sport. Indians lapped up the feel-good bat-and-ball theatrical (and an Oscar nomination) in the same way they'd lapped up cycling in Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar. That was a Tour de Coorg for college-goers, interrupted by fistfights. There was the ridiculous badminton in Humjoli, and the awkward bouncing of the basketball in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. In Naseeb and Dil, heroes babbled plenty in the middle of boxing bouts and the supernatural came to our heroes' aid in Koi Mil Gaya and Chamatkar.
But the makers of Chak De! avoided taking liberties with hockey, and wisely chased Miller down. An American collegiate athlete, he was an 400m runner and football player who became an international performance coach before he drifted into sports broadcast production. He has worked on the broadcast of nine sports, including boxing and cycling, and on each of the 50 functional areas of broadcasting — from camerawork to analysis to statistics to slow motion replays. He was a part of the Sydney Olympic Broadcast Organisation, which, with its sophisticated camerawork, revolutionised the way the Olympics got beamed across the world. He helped put together the home party at Atlanta Games in 1996 and the Salt Lake Games in 2002. With Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, and his latest assignment on the Mary Kom film, Miller is back on the Olympic terrain. "In the US, sports movies are the new Westerns. The good guy vs bad guy cowboy plots have now changed to underdogs vs big bullies in sports arenas, and India's woken up to these stories too. Besides they have great sports figures of their own," he says.
Chak De! director Shimit Amin tracked him down after watching Miracle, a film based on ice hockey player-turned-coach Herb Brooks who led the 1980 US Winter Olympic ice hockey team to victory over the powerful Russian squad. Miller's experience was sought in casting ("I first look for athletic talent, then do a screen test."), as he fished out his coaching contacts and got Aussie Josh Burt to get down to the nitty-gritty of how the Indian women's hockey team would bully the Argentines and break down the Koreans. "Athletes make it look simple — whether it's hitting a six, or a drag flick or making a touchdown. When actors get down to it, they realise it's not quite easy. Actors are enamoured of sportsmen, and want to do the real-hero turns, that's where we step in, helping them prepare," he says. There was plenty of potential for over-the-top jingoistic drama in Chak De!, but Miller was glad that he did not have to deal with last-ball-sixes or its equivalents in hockey.
Miller then worked on Dil Bole Hadippa, a film on a sport "Americans just don't understand." "Trust the English to be playing a game, and then break for tea!" he says. But cricket choreography was like learning a new language, and Miller got specialists to train the actors, even as he drew the broad canvas. "For us, sport action is not for action's sake. If people wanted that, they'd watch a sports channel. Sport needs to be woven in seamlessly, not reproduced in movies. We also help with things like telling actors that athletes don't walk or speak like that," he says. Having worked on TV series Slamball, Perfect Score and One Tree Hill as well as the epic Four Minutes (on Roger Bannister, the British legend who ran a mile in less than four minute miles), Miller is emphatic that a sports movie shouldn't look like a recreated race or match.
Bhaag Milkha Bhaag was a colossal collaboration. Foreign athletes were expected to run a pre-run race, so Miller's men fanned out across the US and Canada, picking out collegiate athletes who would be ready for an Indian adventure which involved several retakes of running in hot, sapping conditions. "I first prepared a FAQ list about weather, food, and insect bites for parents. The college kids themselves didn't have any hang-ups travelling to India and were thrilled to be in a Bollywood movie," he says.
In races, shooting the finish and start sequences is highly technical, and what might appear as mere running was a torturous set of shots. "The difficulty with casting for runners is anyone can run. But everyone can tell who can't run or looks awkward running on screen. There's a lot of start and stop in running shoots, it was draining. We were lucky that Farhan Akhtar had put in tremendous preparation to last the rigours," he says.
The challenge eventually came from an Indian, cast locally, who was supposed to lose the race to Akhtar. "It was difficult to teach him to come second when running full tilt. It took some explaining that he wasn't supposed to win the race!" he says. The whole 400m was never shot at one go, and in some instances, Akhtar's running was superimposed against the crowd, and starts were mostly staggered, so the pro runners would stay suitably behind.
The Mary Kom biopic was a rushed schedule, though Miller is impressed with Priyanka Chopra whose dance background, he says, has helped her move fluidly in the ring. His parents had watched Muhammad Ali and Holyfield spar from ringside, and boxing dominated many dinnertime conversations back home. Miller sat down with American Olympic coach Christy Halbert, watching recordings of all five Mary Kom World Championship titles, to analyse the Manipuri southpaw's unorthodox style.
"Boxing's a closeted, small, tight corner, and there's only so much you can do with those frames. The demands on an actor are huge, because it's close-up. The fear of getting a punch on the face is worse than actually being hit. Chopra was less apprehensive than I thought and it was more about getting used to the headgear," he says.
Sports movies demand that actors and athletes go against their instinct — quarterbacks getting blindsided are supposed to expect to get hit, or a fielder is supposed to miss a catch when his instinct says he should hold on to the ball. "It's difficult to lie to yourself, and people underestimate the pressure on actors," says Miller.
The films are scanned for bloopers by pedants, forcing directors to seek specialists. "There were some great sports movies from 20 or 30 years ago. However audiences have grown more savvy and expect more authenticity today. People watch sports 24/7 on TV now and broadcasters show lots of angles to keep it interesting. But, for a movie, it always comes back to telling the story through the action. This means pre-production planning, actor training, athlete casting, and choreography need to be taken just as seriously as the filming," says Miller, who lists Rocky, Chariots of Fire, Bill Durham and Hoosiers as his favourite sports films.
For a man who choreographs races to the last milli-secondth detail, he has made peace with some Indian habits. "I know in India when people say two minutes, it is ot always two minutes! But I love the place. I feel privileged working on movies and sport that mean so much to people here. How many Americans can boast of playing Trivial Pursuit (a board game) with Shah Rukh Khan and beating him at it!" he says, ever the competitive sportsman.