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Why Priyanka Chopra was picked to play Mary Kom

The author goes behind the scenes to see how the soon-to-be-released biopic on the legendary boxer was made

Ranjita Ganesan 

Mary Kom is a biopic, not a documentary.” Almost as if they had gathered in a room and decided upon it, most people connected with the film based on India’s feisty pugilist, M C Mary Kom, say this in response to questions about authenticity. Indeed, an entirely non-fictional work would not have had a popular actress essaying the role of the five-time world champion. It may also not have depicted sweat flying artistically or fighters collapsing with practised grace as in the trailer of Omung Kumar’s debut directorial venture. And no producer would expect a documentary to do business of Rs 100 crore.

NorthEast Today, a monthly magazine, raised doubts in an article about the choice of Priyanka Chopra as the lead, saying her physical appearance contrasted with that of Kom. Director Kumar’s decision was simple. In his opinion, Chopra is the best actress in the industry and can also draw a wide audience. Kom herself is pleased that someone “as beautiful and talented” as Chopra should be playing her. Biographical films are known to take flattering liberties though, as the late critic Roger Ebert had explained in his review of The Hurricane (1999). “Most biopics, like most grandmothers, see the good in a man and demonise his enemies. In dramatising his victories, they simplify them. And they provide the best roles to the most interesting characters. If they didn’t, we wouldn’t pay to see them.”

For Chopra, the role is a vital one. She has had a bumpy run recently with successes like Barfi and Krrish 3 as well as duds like Zanjeer and Gunday. If Mary Kom succeeds, the success will be entirely hers. She took keen care in preparing for the role, bringing along her own trusted make-up man and training with an instructor recommended by Farhan Akhtar. Training began within days of Chopra’s father passing away in June 2013. Samir Jaura, the man behind Akhtar’s sculpted body in Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, was required to get her in shape. He travelled with her for five months, helping her develop a toned look. While he did not get a chance to meet Kom, he prepared a workout plan with the help of her videos. Jaura is bound by contract not to disclose the specifics but says he trained Chopra to build strength, endurance and stamina. “My goal was to make her get the physique of a female boxer.” Chopra, who was not a gym regular previously, was put on a low-carb, high-protein diet and trained for two to three hours daily.

But that was only one piece of the jigsaw. It took casting directors Shruti Mahajan and Parag Mehta many months of auditions to finalise the other actors. Darshan Kumar, a theatre actor, was cast as Kom’s husband, Onler. Sunil Thapa, a popular villain in Nepalese cinema who was last seen in Ek Duje Ke Liye (1981), will make a comeback in Hindi films as Kom’s coach. Robin Das, a National School of Drama professor, plays the role of Kom’s father. Some actors like Kenny Basumatary, who is the boxer’s manager in the film, were contacted through Facebook. Basumatary had directed Local Kung Fu, a low-budget comedy released last year. During an interview for a behind-the-scenes special, the martial arts practitioner confessed he would have had one of Kom’s students play her had he made the film, but also complimented Chopra for her attention to detail, especially when it came to boxing footwork.

For side roles in the ring, Kumar’s choice was between training actors to mime the sport or training boxers to be actors. He went with the latter because “if both Chopra and her opponents were fake-boxing, it would not look convincing”. Robert Miller, sports coordinator for films like Bhaag Milkha Bhaag and Chak De India, roped in Christy Halbert who was USA’s assistant coach at the London Olympics to choreograph the fights. Chopra also took the help of coaches from Kom’s academy and stand-in boxers who would demonstrate shots that she mimicked. The combat scenes took 15 hours of shooting daily for 20 days to complete. The blows were often real and left Chopra with migraines, claims Kumar. Apart from Kom’s bouts, the team watched Hollywood hits such as Rocky and Million Dollar Baby to make sure they did not to repeat what was already out there.

The biggest challenge was to make Chopra look like Kom. When the prosthetics used by make-up artists from the US failed to impress, local artists were invited to help with the look. Eventually, Uday Shirali, who has worked with Chopra since Agneepath (2012), was employed. In a process that took an hour to complete every day, he started by adding a solution that makes the eye smaller and used three shades on the eyelids to give them a northeast-Indian appearance. He then lightened the eyebrows with bleach, used pinkish tones to replicate the famous “apple cheeks” of the hills and, somewhat inexplicably, decided to add freckles that Kom does not have. Tasked with the job of dressing Chopra for the role, designer Rajat Tangri used photographs from Kom’s childhood to date and fashion clothes that range from traditional to sporty and athletic. Besides, he visited the state to study weaves, crafts, patterns and colours in the dressing style of local tribes.

Saiwyn Quadras exhibits both the excitement and earnestness of a man weeks away from becoming a first-time father. Mary Kom is the 33-year-old’s maiden writing effort and the three-and-a-half years of its making, which he describes as “a long and difficult pregnancy”, may have been responsible for the shades of grey in his ponytail. In some ways, claims the former events executive, the journey of the film is not unlike its protagonist. From her humble beginnings in a tiny Manipur village, Kom went on to excel in a sport her family knew nothing about, winning two world championships and an Olympic bronze after giving birth to twin boys. Quadras points out that Kumar and most of the cast except actress Chopra were debutants who despite having little experience with an offbeat women-oriented subject, managed to find big producers: Sanjay Leela Bhansali and Viacom18 Motion Pictures.

It was in Bhansali’s school of extravagance that Kumar had hitherto operated, as the art director of choice. His Andheri office betrays those sensibilities. Decorated with chandeliers, masquerade masks, small colourful doors and a wooden ceiling with Van Gogh murals, it looks like the inside of a tasteful gingerbread house. Seated amid the paraphernalia, the former actor and set designer explains how he learnt various skills on the job that helped him to become a director. He called Quadras to work on some large-scale, actor-centric scripts but they were shelved for seeming risky. He knew he wanted to make a biopic on a sportsperson, Kumar insists, even before the success of Paan Singh Tomar (2010) or Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (2013). (While Paan Singh Tomar won critical acclaim, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag was overly dramatised but became a success at the box office.) He decided it would have to have a woman in the lead because he felt actress would be more enthusiastic about a meaty role.

That was when Quadras, who reads the newspaper starting with the sports pages, revisited snippets about the famous boxer from the Northeast. He researched online to confirm that it was a story worth telling. Kumar was unaware of Kom’s achievements at the time. The project began with a meeting in Manipur to seek her permission. While they expected Kom to arrive in gym attire, the diminutive boxer walked in wearing oversized sunglasses, ripped slacks and a T-shirt. This unexpected girly side showed there was more to her than just boxing and the team was eager to play with these details in the script. They speak of discovering Kom’s idiosyncrasies — her temper, playfulness or the painted nails inside the boxing gloves — with visible delight. “You would expect her to be a plain Jane but no, she is a girl. So we have to show those two diametrically opposite sides as well,” says Quadras. In her autobiography, Unbreakable, Kom describes the meeting as one where “we all felt comfortable working with each other”.

For a year, Kom was the team’s little secret but the London Olympics of 2012 changed that. She became a national celebrity and word got out that a biopic was in the works. The film chooses to highlight the period spanning her early struggles until her comeback match post-motherhood. A fifth world championship and the Olympic bronze have been left out, though one can imagine, in the manner of most biopics, these achievements will be announced in text at the end of the film. Kom was a willing participant in the research too. “I met Chopra in Mumbai, much before she came to Manipur, during which time we spoke at length,” Kom said in an interview to The Times of India. “When she came to Manipur, she knew about boxing, so I gave her tips as a mother and a wife, how I went about managing my home and profession, how I live with my family.” Kom, husband Onler and her manager, Jimmy, were routinely reached over the phone for any clarification.

The film was shot in 57 days over two years. The boxing scenes were filmed on a set in Filmistan Studios, Mumbai, while parts depicting Manipur were shot in Manali in Himachal Pradesh. Plans to shoot in Manipur were dropped because of logistics issues and the team recced Manali and Dharamshala instead. Kumar’s wife, Vanita, who is the production designer, used a real structure instead of a set to show Kom’s childhood home in Kangathei. She also sourced indigenous props like short stools and woven curtains from Manipur. Young Bijou Thaangjam from Manipur acted as a language and culture assistant, consulted for everything from enunciation to local terms of endearment or the right way to drape a traditional sarong.

Is there too much drama in Mary Kom, in true Bollywood tradition? Kom’s story is the hero of the film, responds Quadras, adding that she had led a rather “filmy” life. Elements such as her father’s initial resistance to boxing, the romance with Onler and a fit of rage that led her to shave her head were juicy fodder for cinema. Yet, some parts of Kom’s struggle that were not as easy to address were left out. Kom’s book dwells in fair detail on her not being able to compete in higher weight categories because of a small built and frame. The significantly taller Chopra could not have represented this conflict. Hearteningly, the film is said to touch upon the boxer’s activism against corrupt sports federations.

The biopic looks different than anything from Bhansali’s banner, which is known for over-the-top, whimsical cinema. Bhansali, who joined as producer in 2012, has also participated actively in the creative process of the film including editing, scripting and even a small part of direction. Ajit Andhare, COO of Viacom18 Motion Pictures, reckons the subject is heavily marketable. While it seems premature to bring out the champagne, writer Quadras is already indulging hopes that the film will be a potential Oscar nomination. Where will Kom see it? Despite efforts to make an exception in the ban on Hindi cinema in Manipur since 2000 by a secessionist group, it seems unlikely that the film will release in Kom’s home state.

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First Published: Sat, August 23 2014. 00:30 IST