The last session of THiNK featured the unlikely duo of Mary Kom, Olympic boxing medallist, and the movie star Priyanka Chopra. They were onstage together because, remarkably, Chopra has been cast to play Kom in a forthcoming biopic. If you’re sceptical about Chopra’s ability to play Kom, the boxer herself doesn’t share your cynicism. After the Olympic medal, she said, a movie being made about her life is her proudest moment, “especially when a superstar like Priyanka is taking the role.” For her part, Chopra refrained from commenting on how she would transform herself to play a diminutive Manipuri boxer. Given the volume of comment already, much of it critical, she, perhaps wisely, doesn’t want to provide more ammunition until a trailer is officially released.
What she did say was unconvincing. The film, she protested, was “not a docu-drama”, even though earlier she had proudly declared it the first ‘biopic’ of an Indian sportswoman. It is, Chopra insisted, “the story of a girl who comes from very trying circumstances and rises above them.” Certainly, this is true, and films do require the suspension of disbelief. But part of ‘being’ Mary Kom, if you like, part of the hardships she had to overcome was the fact that she looked to her compatriots like a foreigner.
It’s the kind of casual (though no less angering for being ‘casual’) racism that people from the Northeast are forced to grin and bear. In Delhi, people would ask if she was Nepali, would call her ‘bahadur’ (as they do Nepali watchmen). Kom’s family was poor. Life in Manipur was tough. She won her first world championship before her parents even knew she was a fighter. Her father then sold his cow to support her career. Chopra described it as a scandal that Kom, despite being a five-time world champion, was almost completely unknown in India until her Olympic medal.
Kom also spoke movingly about her father’s death after her third world championship. And the tremendous support from her husband that enabled her to return from a Caesarian after just 15 months to claim her fourth. Her life story is an extraordinary one, “against all odds” as Chopra said. It is that most unlikely of Indian stories, about not only sports, but women’s sports, about lifting oneself not just out of poverty but from the fraught politics of the Northeast.
It’s for all this, the symbolic power of Kom’s story, that the decision to cast Chopra seems like an opportunity missed. But Chopra is serious enough about the role to have stayed for weeks with Kom and her family in Manipur. To have trained as a boxer for months. “The gym and the boxing part,” Chopra said with a rueful nod. “It’s damn hard.” It’s a shame then that she also felt obliged to point out what a “girly, girl” Kom was. How she showed up for their first meeting wearing “chiffons and nail polish”. Oh well, I suppose we know what Chopra meant. And they both appeared to get on really well together onstage, so perhaps it’s churlish to complain.
Chopra, however unbelievable it seems for a former Miss World, felt she understood Kom’s difficulties, the feelings of exclusion that charaterise a life of poverty and strife. She was an outsider in a movie industry run on family connections and was passed over for many roles because someone made a phone call. “My biggest flaw,” she said, “is that I don’t show the chinks in the armour.” (Does armour come in chiffon?) But, as Robert De Niro said in his wonderfully recalcitrant session with Shoma Chaudhury, whatever it takes.
So, can a Bollywood superstar play a tough Manipuri boxer? Well, we’ll find out. And if nothing else, at the end of THiNK, it’s food for thought.