Up until the year 2000, every sport in India had a token superstar. Their pictures would feature on the top of magazines like ‘Competition Success Review’, or railway magazines like ‘Wisdom’. For athletics, there was PT Usha. For chess, there was Vishwanath Anand. For badminton, there was Pullela Gopichand.
Unless you read the Sportstar, of course. As a magazine, Sportstar featured detailed cover stories across sports. Which meant that I knew a little bit about various sports. I followed the rivalry between Michael Schumacher and Mika Hakkinen. I read about Davor Sukor and Ronaldo’s (not the dude who kissed Bipasha Basu!) exploits at the FIFA World Cup. I followed Oscar De La Hoya’s domination in boxing. Sportstar gave me a peek into various sports.
But when it came to tennis, it was always about the two Indians – Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupati. It’s hard for today’s generation to imagine two Indians dominating a worldwide sport back in the 90s. There was barely any infrastructure, exposure, or private tournaments. India wasn’t doing great even in cricket, with our biggest cricketers throwing away matches like it was a dice game in Mahabharata.
Which is why Leander Paes’ bronze medal in Atlanta 1996 Olympics was such a big deal. It came out of nowhere, and immediately magazines began to feature the flashy, dark-skinned kid across their covers. In a few years, the combination of Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupati would be a regular in interviews, hoardings and even cameos in movies. The iconic chest-bump, the massive hoardings for Adidas, and the almost homo-erotic ad where the two posed shirtless.
Funnily, I had never stepped on to a tennis court, or even touched a tennis racket up until then. The first time a few of us stepped on to a tennis court, we pretended to be Mahesh Bhupathi and Leander Paes.
Break Point, streaming on Zee5 is a rare exception. Indians aren’t great at making sports films, or documentaries. What we end up making instead, are hagiographies. Mary Kom was an embarrassing film that featured a Priyanka Chopra looking playing a Manipuri boxer. Saina featured a Parineeti Chopra who seemed to share a passion for both badminton and gajar halwa. And the film Sachin: A Billion Dreams – had so much god-worshipping, I was half-expecting a pundit to pop up in the middle of the screening with a hundi and begin asking for chandaa! We Indians are too scared to rake up sticky issues, and too black-and-white in our narrations of sportspersons’ lives.
Which is why it is wonderful that the documentary is director by the director couple – Nitesh Tiwari and Ashwini Iyer Tiwari. They are no strangers to sports dramas (Nitesh directed Dangal), or stories of triumph against extraordinary circumstances (Ashwin Iyer directed Neel Battey Sannata). But more importantly, they bring with them a body of work as tellers of unique and gripping stories.
And there couldn’t have been a more juicy story than the two boys who were called ‘The Indian Express’ across the world. Two young boys playing against the leading ‘goras’ of the world. Money, friendship, and a rumoured love triangle causing a rift between the two. A brain tumour, public feuds, and substantial scoops of Bollywood thrown into the mix. In fact, the two of them fit right into the Jai-Veeru prototype of Hindi cinema. One was explosive and boisterous, the other silent and brooding. It was a story that had all the makings of a Bollywood potboiler.
If a documentary is supposed to help us get to know a person better, Break Point certainly succeeds in painting interesting pictures of the two leads. On one hand, you have Leander – boy genius (he won the Junior Wimbledon in 1990) who played with swagger and bravado. The one with the wild shots and funky hairstyles, the dude who dated a number of Bollywood stars. The guy with enough courage and belief to make Bhuvan seem like a backbencher.
And then there was Mahesh Bhupathi – the silent South Indian who looked like he’d lost his way from a vipassana center. Solid in his game, but rarely flashy or exuberant, Mahesh Bhupathi was the brooding sort who seemed content to be the less-spoken about among the two. If Leander was the alpha, Mahesh was the gamma.
But more than just the two sportspersons, the filmmakers paint a picture of the players’ roots. The Tiwaris also introduce us to the duo’s parents – both sportspersons in their own right. Both obsessed with the success of their sons, both willing to sacrifice so that their children fulfil their dreams. Remember, this was the time when it was impossible to take up a career in sports unless your parents undertook a Bheeshm Pratigya to make you a sportsperson.
But the documentary (which features in 7 parts) succeeds in its pacing. It wastes no time in setting up the characters’ childhoods. By the end of the first episode, the duo have already begun competing in international events. Their characters have been established, and the seeds of the rift have already been sowed in the relationship. Instead of meandering about, the film focuses solely on the ‘meat’ of the story – the ignominious split between the two, and the rift that made the world sit up and take notice. There is speculation, and tidbits of gossip. It is a sports documentary, but it also feels like watching a gossip update on the ‘Zoom’ channel.
After watching the documentary, my curiosity led me to googling the two athletes. I was surprised to find that the both of them have dated/married Bollywood stars. I learnt that Leander won lots of Grand Slams with other partners, as did Mahesh Bhupathi. And also that while they were going through their most successful years, they were barely speaking to each other.
The documentary does a good job with finishing every episode with cliffhangers, and presents a climax and denouement that is at once satisfying and emotional.
If anything, the documentary leaves you with questions of ‘What if?’. What if the two had spoken to each other and sorted their issues out? What if they had continued to have a long partnership, as is the wont with doubles tennis? Would there legacy then not been that of ‘what ifs’, but of ‘what else’?
Break Point is a satisfying watch if you grew up in the 90s, and happened to follow the ‘Indian Express’ through their Grand Slam victories. It makes you wonder how two Indians rose to the top of a sport in which India had no real global superstars.
As it stands, Break Point is a satisfying watch, probably the best Indian sports documentary I’ve watched so far.