“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
ALSO SEE: A gallery on Mary Kom