Meet the man who turns Bollywood stars into super-athletes on screen

Melwyn Crasto takes us behind the scenes of training celebrities as Taapsee Pannu's sports film 'Rashmi Rocket' premieres this week

After the runaway success of Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, the 2013 biopic on the late Indian sprinter Milkha Singh, Rashmi Rocket is the second film to have athletics as a prominent storyline. A third, Laal Singh Chaddha, with actor Aamir Khan in the lead, is due to be released in February 2022.

All three films have one thing in common: athletics trainer Melwyn Crasto.

A track and field coach with the Central Railway Sports Association, Crasto was approached out of the blue for Bhaag Milkha Bhaag to help Bollywood star Farhan Akhtar transform into the role of Singh, one of India's most celebrated athletes. The film was a critical and commercial success and helped to boost Crasto's profile.

He was then asked to train actress Taapsee Pannu for Rashmi Rocket, which will be released on Friday on streaming platform Zee5, as well as Khan for Laal Singh Chaddha, Bollywood's official remake of the 1994 Oscar-winning Tom Hanks film Forrest Gump.

"Training Taapsee was easier than I thought," Crasto tells The National. "I didn't know that she had played sport when she was quite young. So it did not take long for her to get the fitness drills right. Once they were in place, there are about eight to 10 techniques to make an actor look like an athlete.

"They don't have to become a real one overnight, it's not possible. But Taapsee was easy to work with," he says. "Farhan had the physique, but getting the flexibility took time."

In Rashmi Rocket, Pannu plays a rising sprinter whose success on the field is questioned and who is forced to take a sex verification test, a controversial practice in sport used to identify athletes whose hormone levels differ to others of their purported sex.

Prep time for such roles is usually six months, Crasto says, but he only had four months to help transform the actress.

"She did initial prep and muscle building but the lockdowns put a halt on our training," he recalls.

Then, an injury Pannu suffered on set on the third day of filming almost threatened to stop production.

"Such things happen. When you train hard and there is a sudden time off, it happens. The body will react in a certain way. And when the deadlines shifted due to the pandemic, we did have the liberty to ease back in." Crasto says the production team shot off-field scenes during Pannu's recovery.

Watch Taapsee Pannu's transformation for the film 'Rashmi Rocket' below:

It was while filming Rashmi Rocket that Crasto received a call from Khan's team.

"He was filming in Chandigarh, about a four-hour drive from where we were shooting Rashmi Rocket. When I refused, citing logistical challenges, they insisted," Crasto says.

"I had one session and Aamir was adamant to start right away. For two to three days, they sent a car to pick me and drop me, but four-hour drives up and down was too much to handle."

But helping Khan for Laal Singh Chaddha "was not much work" in the end, he says. He's also thankful to his bosses at the Central Railway Sports Association who gave him the flexibility as his schedule got busy.

He says he appreciates the efforts of some stars, such as Pannu, who prefer to put in the effort with no steroids or other performance enhancement drugs.

"It is far more difficult for them than normal athletes. I cannot expect them to run at full steam. As long as they make body movements to resemble athletes with respectful grace and convincing power, the rest can be managed. But that means they had to run 80 metres when athletes would need only 50 metres," he says.

"And with someone or the other messing up while filming, there would be so many retakes. It was very hard on their shin bones and muscles, so hats off to them."

Rashmi Rocket will be available to stream on Zee5 from Friday

Updated: October 14th 2021, 11:12 AM