Priyanka Chopra talks about capturing the moxie of the Indian boxer in the biopic Mary Kom

Mary Kom – starring Priyanka Chopra in the title role – is likely to generate a lot of buzz, firstly because it is about a woman and secondly because it focuses on the little-known north-east Indian state of Manipur.

Priyanka Chopra as the Indian boxing champion Mary Kom. Courtesy Blue Lotus Productions
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Hot on the heels of Farhan Akhtar's award-winning 2013 film Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, another Bollywood sports biopic is scheduled to be released this weekend.

However, Mary Kom – starring Priyanka Chopra in the title role – will probably generate more buzz than Akhtar's gritty drama about the athlete Milkha Singh, firstly because it is about a woman and secondly because it focuses on the little-known north-east Indian state of Manipur.

Based on the life of the boxing champion Mary Kom, the film charts her struggles as a young mother from a small town who went on to win a bronze medal in boxing at the 2012 London Olympics.

“She is every woman or girl who says I will not be limited, I will not be told that this is all I am supposed to be,” says Chopra. “Her story is my story, it’s your story.”

And what a story it is – straight out of a Bollywood masala film.

Kom, 31, is a five-time women’s world boxing champion whose husband, Onkholer, gave up his job to let her fulfil her potential after he saw her talent. Kom is also India’s first female boxer to win an Olympic medal and her perseverance has inspired millions of young Indians to dream.

The boxing

The film’s director, Omung Kumar Bhandula, was not daunted by the fact that he was making Bollywood’s first film about a woman athlete and says Chopra, or PC as he calls her, was also more than up to task. But the hardest part of the role for her, he says, were the boxing scenes.

“PC had never been to the gym before,” he says. “She had to build muscle and tone and get into shape and learn boxing techniques and Kom’s distinctive technique.

“The look, the accent, the setting showing Mary’s home life, her church, her village – all that was relatively easy for us. It was getting the boxing right that was hard.”

A look at the poster reveals how true-to-life the film is, and how hard Chopra trained – she doesn't have a trace of make-up on her face and is all sinewy muscle. Unfortunately for the actress, her busy schedule and commitments to other movies made things that much more difficult. Midway through filming Mary Kom, Chopra had to take time off to work on another movie. When she returned to the Mary Kom set, she had been away for eight months and was forced to start training from scratch.

“The other dilemma was whether her opponents in the ring should be real boxers or actors,” says Bhandula. “Real boxers won’t know how to act and they could have hurt her. But actors wouldn’t know how to fight. In the end, we decided to use real boxers and teach them acting,” he says.

The role

For Chopra, the role was by far the toughest of her career. “To bring Mary’s personality out on the screen was tough,” she says. “To bring her out as a fighter, as a homemaker and a mother was a complex challenge.”

Once the film was complete, Chopra, Bhandula and the producer Sanjay Leela Bhansali were all nervously awaiting Kom’s reaction. They needn’t have worried.

“I was overwhelmed to see different chapters of my life coming alive on the screen,” says Kom, of that first screening. “It was like reliving my life in a two-hour capsule. I was happy, stunned and overcome. It has captured the never-say-die spirit that I believe in.” Kom was so moved by the film that she called Chopra afterwards to congratulate her. By the time they hung up, both were in tears.

Kom says the actress visited her home in Manipur to spend time with her family and observe her.

“She picked up small details, such has my love for cooking and the fact that I like to wear nail polish, which makes her portrayal authentic,” says Kom.

The state

Perhaps the best thing about the movie is that it shines the spotlight on Manipur, where Kom grew up, although it was not shot in there because of logistical difficulties. Instead, it was filmed in Manali, Dharamshala and Mumbai.

Manipur is neglected by the rest of India, like the other states in India’s north-east.

Manipuris frequently encounter hostility and discrimination when they move to New Delhi, Mumbai and other big cities in search of employment or to further their education.

In February, Manipuris took to the streets deman­ding an end to the “racial discrimination” against India’s north-easterners.

Rimi Tania, a 19-year-old Manipuri who studies in New Delhi, says she hopes the film will help to make people see them differently. “There is so much ignorance about us,” she says.

Ironically, Mary Kom may not be shown in Manipur at all – militants there issued a notice in 2000 banning the screening of Hindi-language movies "to protect language and culture". No cinema there has shown a Hindi film since.

Kom has made it clear that she wants the biopic to be shown in her home state. It has been reported that there have been discussions between the filmmakers and the Manipur government, but Bhandula remains non-committal about the possibility.

“It’s a very large issue. We haven’t planned anything yet, but, of course, it should be screened in Manipur,” he says.

Mary Kom is out in cinemas on September 4

Widening the field

Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, starring Farhan Akhtar, was one of the most successful films of the past year and it looks like Mary Kom, with Priyanka Chopra, will be the biggest sports film of this year. Films about athletes often require the actors to undergo intense physical training to do full justice to their roles, but it doesn't look like this is putting off B-town stars. Call it coincidence or call it a new trend, but there are several sports movies in the pipeline for the next year and while not too much has been revealed about them, here is a round-up of the details

John Abraham in 1911

First up is 1911, starring John Abraham and based on the life of the footballer Sibdas Bhaduri. He captained Mohun Bagan (one of West Bengal's best-known football teams) in the historic 1911 IFA Shield Final, in which his team defeated the East Yorkshire Regiment, making them the first Asian team to win the competition. This is the second time the actor will be seen in a football flick, but his first, Dhan Dhana Dhan Goal, did not fare too well. Directed by Shoojit Sircar, Abraham said that the new film will be "like nothing you've ever seen before". Well, if it means Abraham will finally start acting, we can get on board with that.

Sangram Singh in Yuva

If you watched Bigg Boss season 7, you will remember the mild-mannered sportsman Sangram Singh. The wrestler has bagged himself a film deal and will be seen playing a sports coach in the film Yuva, directed by Jasveer Bhatti. The film is being shot in Delhi and Agra and we hear Singh had to change his look for the movie.

King Khan in a hockey film?

Another film in the works is based on the life of the famous Indian field hockey player, Dhyan Chand, regarded by many as the all-time greatest in the sport. The film, which will be directed by Manmohan Shetty, is still at the casting stage and Shah Rukh Khan has been approached to play the title role. There is no word yet on whether he has accepted.

* Aarti Jhurani