There are biopics and then there are standout biopics. Omung Kumar, supported by co-producer Sanjay Leela Bhansali, takes on the daunting task of etching out the life-story-to-date of an unknown yet determined young woman from the far reaches of India’s hinterlands. As the reels unspool, Kumar & Co. transform the life of Indian boxing champion Mary Kom for the big screen and achieve the seemingly impossible. Kumar takes a two-dimensional real life story and turns it into a vibrant multi-faceted portrayal that stands up to any great biopic.
Like any sports-crazed nation, India loves her sports heroes. As elsewhere, the choice few anointed first among equals when it comes to athletic prowess are exalted to virtually demi-god status with riches and fame across India and the diaspora. The sports stars make enormous amount of money from playing and also from fat endorsement fees. Now the reality check: Almost all of those stars in India are almost exclusively male. For a woman to break that glass ceiling is akin to one or a few women in India winning a lottery amongst 1.2 billion players.
Mary Kom’s reality was no different. As a “tribal” from the remote Indian state of Manipur—which is closer to Thailand, Burma and Nepal than it is to New Delhi—the odds were stacked against her. Born Mangte Chungneijang Kom, later shortened to Mary Kom by her coach, Kom’s peasant upbringing and lack of family connections were formidable early obstacles.
With determination and poise, Kom initially had to overcome her father’s strong objection, which then cleared the way for her to enter the world of women’s boxing full-time. First winning at the local level and then going on to establish regional, state level, national and eventually international fame, Kom transformed the average Indian’s perception of women in boxing from that of odd curiosity to household recognition and respectability.
And that is only one half of the story. The other half is Kumar’s movie and Chopra’s portrayal of Kom, of getting into Kom’s onscreen persona and breathing fire into a sporting legend in a whole different sphere. Chopra’s hourglass supermodel contours are replaced by ill-fitting training sweatpants that showcase an awesome chiseled physique that may be the biggest personal physical transformation for a Hindi movie female lead to date.
The designer lip gloss is replaced by sweat and on more than one occasion, blood while Chopra’s bejeweled clutch purses are replaced by bamboo training poles required for doing calisthenics on barren rock on a bitter cold Himalayan mountain morning.
Chopra’s Kom is a budding hungry tigress unaware of just how far her territory extends or just how far the hunt will take her.
Underneath the tough exterior there is a strong-willed woman trying not only to win in the ring but also managing being married to her husband Onler (Darshan Kumaar) and giving birth to twins. Kom’s personal struggles include an on-again off-again coaching arrangement with her old school Coach Singh (Sunil Thapa), which also parallel the stumbles and the high-fives in Kom’s life.
While Saiwyn Qadras’s screenplay can’t help resort to formulaic medical drama in part—a heart monitor ticking away in one frame juxtaposed against a key championship boxing match about to ring-ring-ring in the next frame—it is not enough to detract from director Kumar’s ability to make us root for Kom against any and all odds. The result is a movie that delivers immensely satisfying glimpses into the life of someone we knew about in passing—and now know about first hand.
In the background, another noteworthy element is the Shashi-Shivam score made up of motivating, exhilarating and winning tunes that are captivating. The score adds credibility to Kom’s journey from high school bully to Olympian. The movie also puts to rest any doubts about Chopra’s ability to deliver a figurative knock-out performance to match her on-screen character’s many knock-outs in the boxing ring. In addition to Mary Kom’s amazing rags to riches real life trajectory, we will now have this amazing movie as an accompaniment to Kom’s story. Bravo!
Globe trekker, aesthete, photographer, ski bum, film buff, and commentator, Aniruddh Chawda writes from Milwaukee.