When Chak De! India (2007) director Shimit Amin first approached Rob Miller for the film, the former sports performance coach jumped at the idea of travelling to India. Miller, the Florida, US-based president and chief executive officer of ReelSports Inc., had combined his skills as a sports coach and television broadcast producer to form a company that directs and choreographs sports action for film and television. His role for Chak De! was to infuse authenticity into a genre—sports feature films—that was not common in Indian cinema then.
The movie’s subsequent success owes not just to Shah Rukh Khan’s drawing power and Amin’s competent storytelling, but, equally, to the credibility of the sports action, the choreography, cinematography and editing that was able to capture the drama of live sport on celluloid.
While Hollywood has for years made believable sports films—from Rocky (1976) to Escape To Victory (1981), A League Of Their Own (1992), Remember The Titans (2000) and the latest, King Richard and Hustle—India has been late to the game. A few, like Prakash Jha’s engaging Hip Hip Hurray in 1984 and Nagesh Kukunoor’s Iqbal in 2005, managed to find the balance between action and emotion. Some, like Lagaan (2001), took it farther, but the film’s triumph was its originality rather than the amateurish—as it was meant to be—sports action.
It’s only recently that a spate of films—fictionalised biopics or just sports fiction—have indicated that the genre has finally turned a corner in Hindi cinema. Whether or not film-makers succeed in building a gripping narrative, the action has become more credible.
Miller himself has stacked up quite a resume, having worked on 83, Jersey, Azhar (cricket), Jungle Cry (rugby), Mary Kom (boxing), Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (athletics) and Lahore (kick-boxing), among others. His latest assignment is Maidaan, a football film that’s yet to release.
Miller is the kind of expert film-makers hire to validate their storylines, to authenticate the sports action and to make actors look convincing while playing a straight drive or an uppercut. While Indian actors have been happy to bulk up for a role, in these cases they have added more nuance—with body language, physical shape and sporting technique. Some, like Lahore (2010), Chak De!, Dangal (2016), Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (2013) and 83 (2021), succeeded in making the sports action plausible to an extent; others, like the recent Shabaash Mithu, Saina, Rashmi Rocket, didn’t. Their success ultimately was dependent on the passion of the film-maker, the dedication of the artists, and, importantly, budgets and time.
Only some, like Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, Chak De!, Lagaan, Dangal, have been commercial successes, emphasising the need for a film to combine aspects of engaging storytelling with authenticity besides, of course, star power. Shabaash Mithu, for instance, made just ₹2.09 crore, according to Box Office India. In contrast, last year’s 83 made around ₹103 crore in gross collections. Nevertheless, Box Office India termed it a “disaster”.
If Miller has a company that’s dedicated to sports choreography and hires specialists for the job, others, like former cricketers Balwinder Singh Sandhu, Nooshin Al Khadeer, athletics coach Melwyn Crasto, wrestler Kripa Shankar Bishnoi Beniwal and boxer Neeraj Goyat, have lent their own expertise to films. Whether it’s selecting the actors, getting the styles right, teaching writers and directors the subtleties of the sport or even helping the cinematographer set appropriate frames, they can get as involved as the film-maker wants them to be.
Training for the role
“On the face of it, the toughest thing was learning the sport,” Farhan Akhtar told me in an interview last year before the release of Toofan, in which he plays a boxer. “Even by an athlete’s imagination, boxing is one of the toughest sports, most difficult.”
Akhtar first started training with boxing coach Drew Neal in November 2019, almost a year before the actual film shoot started; it was delayed due to the first lockdown. Boxing action choreographer Darrell Foster, who worked with Will Smith for Ali, joined the crew.
“By the time I joined,” says Goyat over the phone from Canada, “the choreography had started and we were on the sets. We would discuss the action, train, and he (Akhtar) would ask technical questions. He was particular about not looking bad (on screen).”
A professional boxer now, Goyat also worked with Vineet Singh in Mukkabaaz (2017) and had cameos in both films, inevitably getting battered by the lead actor.
“With boxing, what I didn’t realise, and I learnt while preparing, is how strong your legs need to be,” said Akhtar, who played a sprinter in Bhaag Milkha Bhaag. “When we watch (on TV), it is waist up. You think of the shoulder, back and arms. You need strength there but a lot comes from the legs, positioning of feet.”
Crasto, who worked on Bhaag Milkha Bhaag and trains athletes for Indian Railways when not assisting movie stars, lists some basic drills that are a must for a track-and-field athlete in any discipline. This includes a set of over a dozen workouts to strengthen the lower body and improve running mechanics, like high knees, back kicks, lunges, running lunges, ostrich walk/dance, alternate toe-touches and Russian dance. “Running is broken into smaller drills. When you join the drills, it forms your running form,” he says.
Weight training is a must, two-three times a week, but with medium weights done with quick repetitions. Sprinters need to do hamstring curls, high knees with barbells on shoulders, and ensure their quadriceps are strong, Crasto adds.
By the time the coach was done with training Aamir Khan for the recently released Laal Singh Chaddha, he claims the 57-year-old actor was able to run the 100m in a little over 13 seconds. Akhtar could do the 400m in about 52 seconds while shooting Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, with a best of 11.8 seconds in the 100m.
According to Crasto, the late Milkha Singh, on whom Bhaag Milkha Bhaag is based, had visited Priyadarshini Park in Mumbai twice to check on Akhtar’s running gait—Milkha Singh’s hands used to go sideways while running and Akhtar had to re-enact that. The actor’s running gait in the film, with the head swinging slightly sideways, is one of the best depictions of sports action.
For Ranveer Singh, speaking in halting, hesitant English and using fake dentures would probably have been easier than trying to replicate Kapil Dev’s signature, fluid bowling action in 83. One thing that worked in Singh’s favour was that he had a natural pull shot, says Sandhu. He could do that in a fashion quite similar to Dev’s famous Nataraj posture that was a photographer’ delight—the all-rounder’s torso would twist to the left, with the left leg raised as the ball raced to the square-leg fence.
But having finished shooting for Simmba (2018), Sandhu remembers Singh as being “huge”. “I told him that Kapil’s action will be difficult to replicate. He had to lose 15kg. He said he would do it in two months’ time. I asked him to tell me his secret, so I can also lose weight,” Sandhu says, smiling on a Zoom call.
Sandhu, who was part of the 1983 World Cup-winning cricket team, had some help from his former teammates as well. Dev was only too happy to give Singh inputs on that instantly recognisable bowling action. Mohinder Amarnath, the 1983 team’s vice-captain, helped actor Saqib Saleem replicate his bobbing trundle to the crease.
“If you ask a male actor to play cricket, he would be able to play some shots. For an actress to adapt is tough because Mithali (Raj) is a copybook cricketer who is totally into her technique,” says Al Khadeer, referring to the belief that boys are more likely to have played cricket while growing up than girls.
When the makers of Shabaash Mithu (2022) got Al Khadeer, who had played five Tests and 78 One Day Internationals for the Indian women’s team, to help Taapsee Pannu with the role, it took some convincing; the cricketer-turned-coach had not done anything of the sort before. Pannu was to play cricketer Mithali Raj and Al Khadeer was the ideal choice, having played with Raj through the junior ranks, for the Railways and then for the country.
With the help of three other cricketers, they started coaching Pannu on the grip and decided to follow the same process as teaching any beginner. “It’s easier to work then because you have a clean slate,” says Al Khadeer.
As an experienced wrestler-turned-coach, Beniwal is used to teaching the uninitiated how to grapple. When he was included in casting for Dangal, he was clear about what he wanted from the actors. He calls it “catching power”, an ability to grasp the technique, make quick decisions and bounce back swiftly.
“Wrestling is a different sport. Unlike badminton or football, there is no equipment, racket or bat. Even in judo, you grasp your opponent’s clothes. Wrestling is just the body—you bend it, twist it and hold the body that you need to topple. Anyone can attempt cricket, not wrestling.”
He was given more than six months to train the two main actors he helped select, Fatima Sana Shaikh and Sanya Malhotra. “We had stronger girls than Fatima, Sanya…but we needed someone who could follow the technique without using strength. Flexibility, strength and endurance can be increased but the grabbing power is genetic. This does not increase quickly,” he says.
Beniwal started slowly, with short runs that increased in intensity over time. There was free-weight training to build explosive strength. Small wrestling movements were introduced because the sport gives the body a battering and Beniwal needed the actors to be able to differentiate between muscle soreness and injury.
“The scenes they were shooting were not the I-love-you type, which you can do 10 times,” he says, laughing over the phone call. “You can do wrestling manoeuvres two-three times. Then you are finished.”
Touch of the real
For Rashmi Rocket (2021), director Akarsh Khurana decided to use sports camera operators in addition to technicians who work in feature films. They had four people shooting all the race portions in Ranchi, with lead cinematographer Neha Parti Matiyani overseeing the team. With professional runners acting as Pannu’s competitors, there was speed on tracks, flat-out runs, which meant it was not possible to do too many retakes.
“She (Pannu) would do it two-three times but beyond that was not possible due to risk of injury—you warm up, cool down, warm up again…. It had to be a planned shoot, with everyone in sync,” says Khurana.
Laal Singh Chaddha too has track and field sequences, for which actors and athletes had to run in sync. Aamir Khan’s competitors on screen were state-level runners who had to match the actor’s speed—and lose.
“When running, there is only running and no choreography,” Akhtar had said about the action sequences being set to a drill. “I didn’t have to remember the punches (like in Toofan), what was being thrown next, and it was a lot more demanding than shooting Milkha.”
Since actors don’t always get the playing technique right, 83 used five cameras for every delivery so all angles could be covered, including ones that would not expose any incorrect postures. Every shot was documented before it was canned, where every fielder would be, what each player would do, how they would move, etc. Costume designers knew which character would wear a sweater or a Panama cap.
Sandhu says it was predetermined whose trousers would get red stains—from rubbing the ball—on which side. The actors playing Sandhu and Dev would have markings on their left leg while Roger Binny’s would be on his backside. Actor Jiiva’s (in an excellent representation of Krishnamachari Srikkanth) knees and elbows would be soiled from constant diving, while the wicket-keeper’s pads had to be muddied.
As the game progressed on screen, the wear and tear had to become more pronounced, except for players like Sandeep Patil and Dilip Vengsarkar, who were not known to dive and would exit the field in pristine whites. “Sometimes,” Sandhu adds, “the hair stylist would rush in to fix someone’s hair but I would say their hair should remain like that. They should have sweaty faces because they are playing cricket.”
On the flip side, Miller says what’s tougher is teaching real-life athletes, who act as competitors on screen, to do the opposite of what they have been trained to do their whole lives. “For instance, dropping a ball—it’s not what you are trying to do, though it happens.”
“As audiences have become more savvy,” Miller adds, “they will not see a movie just for the sports—it is for the story, the movie experience. But you want the sport to be credible. You want it to be believable, to be able to step into that world—like any other world I guess.”
The Dangal crew choreographed sequences differently, based on the bout they were showing. The Commonwealth Games contests had more cameras, longer cuts, to give the experience of watching in a stadium. They generally used two-three cameras, a steady cam and one for long distance.
“If you look at Mahavir’s (Aamir Khan) fight with Geeta (Shaikh)—it was more personal,” says director Nitesh Tiwari. “So we had extreme close-ups, to show the khunnas (anger). It was a heated fight, if you look at the pace also, we shot in slow motion to show Mahavir running out of breath. We wanted the intensity of the fight to make you breathless.”
In their effort to be realistic, Tiwari and Beniwal say the main actors went through intensive training schedules lasting more than six months—and continued during the shoot. They had to prepare differently for their bouts on the mat and on mud, because the fighting speed, pitch and style are different for both.
Beniwal was not just instrumental in choreographing the fights but also helped the writers understand the sport, like the way points are scored, so they could sketch the narrative accordingly.
“We were clear we want to show extensive wrestling—and not just fix in the edit,” Tiwari adds. “Wrestlers had to be good, so we don’t rely on post-production. We asked Kripa to show us all the possible moves so the same action is not repeated.”
Wrestling is a tricky sport in that most points scored are not obvious to the lay viewer. To make it more cinematic, Tiwari and Beniwal included some flamboyant moves (besides the commentary) for the audience to understand that some points had been scored.
“The edit pattern and choreography is such that they are longer takes, not quick cuts. Too many cuts take the feeling of ‘watching in a stadium’ away. This confidence came from the girls’ training—they could hold the shot much longer. They could fight longer,” says Tiwari.
Prepping for the post
Both Crasto and Miller, who have worked on multiple films, insist on the script before they even agree to a project. “There are lots of (athletic) events, like the 100m, 200m, 800m, 1,500m, 5,000m, 10,000m...” Crasto trails off. “I need to know the role, is it a biopic or a general athlete? What event are you looking at? For example, in Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, he was running the 200m and 400m.”
The film-makers tell Crasto how and where a scene is to be shot. He needs to know when the lead finishes first or second or otherwise. He provides athletes for the filming; some have competed at the state or national levels.
Dangal’s casting crew was given a set of conditions for choosing the actors, including some resemblance to Aamir Khan (negotiable, since Sakshi Tanwar, who plays the mother, had not yet been cast), willingness to train (non-negotiable), ability to get stronger and put on weight, willingness to cut hair (no wigs allowed), and with no major pre-existing medical conditions.
“Kripa would look at them (at the audition) and say ‘is ke bas ki baat hai ya nahin (will she be able to do it)?’” says Tiwari. They had body doubles on standby while shooting because there are “certain moves you may have done well in practice but may not be able to pull off on screen”.
But the body doubles were not used. “We never needed to.”
ReelSports works with different experts, customising the project based on the sport. Miller says 90% of any sport film’s requirements are the same—it’s only 10% that changes with the sport. “Even if it’s a sport I had competed at, we would have a technical expert who lives and breathes that sport. That’s part of the team concept,” he says.
Lionising the sportsperson
“One challenge,” says Miller, “is athletes make sport look easy on TV but there is nothing easy about it. They train their whole life for it. Just because it looks easy, everyone thinks they can do it too.”
For sports consultants, the job becomes more manageable when the film-maker and actor are passionately committed to the project, the producers are not afraid to spend, and when they are trusted to do the job. “The biggest challenge always is having enough time to prepare,” Miller adds. “There are budgetary constraints too. Usually, it’s a mindset—is your goal to deliver the best product?”
There has been a shift in recent times in how sport-themed films are made, driven by bigger budgets and an audience exposed to international films through online platforms, crossover movies and a desire to be competitive, on par with movies from other countries. That has led to more rigour, effort and an acceptance of newer roles in a filming crew, like that of the sports expert.
Sandhu says they rejected a few good actors for 83 because they were not athletic enough. “I rejected,” he says, “because I was endorsing the cricketing aspect of the film while (director) Kabir (Khan) was doing the acting part. He trusted me enough for me to say yes and no.”
Al Khadeer was impressed that Pannu carried her own kit, would shoot for Looop Lapeta (2022) and then train for Shabaash Mithu. “She (Pannu) had a problem playing the square cut but, in the end, was able to do it with the help of throwdowns. We had a talk about it and she asked that if we could hit it straight, why cut it,” says Al Khadeer, laughing, referring to shot selection in cricket based on the length and line of the delivery.
Pannu, who has also played a shooter in Saand Ki Aankh (2019) and a hockey player in Soorma (2018), became so confident after Rashmi Rocket that she asked Crasto if she could participate in district- and state-level meets. By the time Dangal finished, Tiwari says the girls were good enough to pin him down.
“I prefer authenticity,” Tiwari says. “Every sport is technical—wrestling is even more so. You might think who would notice a grip but I would. I should not notice it and feel it has gone wrong. There is sport in Chhichhore (the 2019 film he directed after Dangal) also but that was a hostel-level sporting event. Those matches are not technically correct but if you are showing the Commonwealth Games, it needs to be authentic.”
While the overall process is similar to the way sports films are made internationally, there are a few differences in India. Miller says: “Hollywood spends more time on preparation, less on actual filming. Also, Hollywood isn’t afraid to explore the good and bad of a character. In India, you don’t see that quite as much.”
Miller’s reference stems from the fact that most sports films based on real characters, including M. S. Dhoni: The Untold Story (2016), Soorma, Shabaash Mithu and Saina, are hagiographies rather than biopics, one-sided stories that enable the athlete to come across looking like a noble hero rather than a flawed human being. Most are made with the blessings of the sportsperson the film is based on, ensuring a sanitised version of their life story.
Indian films have not yet tried to break the formulaic mould of sports films, which tend to have similar arcs—a child prodigy, spotted by a coach/scout, trains hard, reaches the pinnacle of the sport, suffers a setback, trains again and reclaims glory. But while the storytelling modes are still evolving, what’s on the rise is the effort to get the sporting aspect of the film right.
For sports consultants who work on such projects, it helps relive the days when they could still swing one in, slam someone down on a mat. “When I saw this film (Dangal) for the first time,” says Beniwal, “I was looking at my work. I initially didn’t believe actors could do it (wrestling), as they tend to be a bit delicate. But the girls did a hundred times better than I expected and I got praise for the film from people I didn’t even know.”
For Sandhu, there were moments of déjà vu during filming, like a scene from a team bus that left him in tears. “I waited for Kabir to say cut and went out to the tent. They saw me crying and they all hugged me,” he says.
“I won two World Cups—one real and reel,” adds Sandhu. “This movie did not make money at the box office because of covid-19. Then Kapil said even in ’83 we did not make money. We got name and fame. The same thing happened this time as well.”
Arun Janardhan is a Mumbai-based journalist who covers sports, business leaders and lifestyle.He tweets @iArunJ.