India’s first-ever female Olympic medallist Karnam Malleswari is looking forward to an authentic depiction of her life as work begins on her biopic — including the proud flaunting of bicep muscles, a sight that draws awe and admiration in 2020, 20 years after her Sydney Games bronze.
“When I began weightlifting in 1987, the pressure on girls to not play sports was very high. Today girls go to gyms and put up pictures of their muscles (on social media),” Malleswari chuckles about the changing times. “In our time, we used to try to wear loose t-shirts to hide our muscles! Our muscular bodies were never considered an appropriate shape for women,” said Malleswari, who has two gold medals at the World Championships, two bronze besides a pair of Asiad silver medals to go with the Sydney podium place.
The year 1994, when she first became world champion, coincided interestingly with Sushmita Sen and Aishwarya Rai returning with crystal-studded tiaras and sashes from pageants, shining on the global stage.
Malleswari says while the beauty queens, on their return home, had the cameras following them everywhere, she had to look for an autorickshaw at the airport to reach the capital’s Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium.
The woman who broke a very important barrier believes that she never got the adulation she deserved. Finally, the Malleswari story can change all that.
After being in talks since 2016, the weightlifter’s biopic, chronicling her life from early teens to Sydney, is set to be made by Telugu director Sanjana Reddy as a multilingual movie that has a reported budget of Rs 70 crore. The script and casting are yet to be finalised.
Reddy spoke to The Indian Express about her inspiration for making a biopic on the weightlifter hailing from her own hometown. “We are from Srikakulam district, which is below the poverty line. At that time, new syllabus books used to come to us in December after all other districts were given study material and that’s when I first read about her. After the Sydney medal, she became royalty in our district. I saw her for the first time when I was in Class IX. She had come to inaugurate a government ladies’ hostel opposite my school. As we were growing up, any example of a strong woman would start with Karnam Malleswari.”
Reddy would later watch Bhaag Milkha Bhaag and felt that as a director, she was ready to take on the responsibility of retelling her favourite story.
“I realised the sportsperson who had inspired me from my school days had yet to have a biopic of her own! I found her number in December 2016, called her and told her I was from the same place as her and could take up this project after I completed my first movie. She wanted it to be a big movie with big stars and the release of Dangal around the same time made her feel that she deserved a movie of similar proportions.”
The feeling of the country having failed to acknowledge Malleswari’s achievements came a lot of years after those days in 1994 and is a primary reason for the biopic to now go under the works.
Speaking about that time and how athletes never chased money and fame as actively as now, Malleswari told The Indian Express, “If I’m honest, it didn’t bother me that much at the time. Our mind was never in that direction. Athletes today know that they want the money, the publicity – we never had that knowledge at the time. Our motivation was that there were international competitions every three months and losing in any of them would be shameful. But at that time, we never realised that money and fame is important as well. Yeh ab samajh aata hai (we understand it now).”
The multiple-time world champion from Voosavanipeta, Andhra Pradesh touched more top-level medals than most Indian athletes and yet never received the “money, fame and publicity” — her words — that those in the hyper-networked world enjoy today.
Now with a biopic underway, the five-feet-four former weightlifter’s only hope is that the movie truly describes her life and the struggles she went through in an ecosystem where success came despite the usual apathy in the country.
“My only request was that Karnam Malleswari should be seen for what she is. My struggles, my training, all the coaches I went through – it must be there for all to see,” she said.
Malleswari also throws a square challenge to any actor wanting to play her: “In a boxing movie, you can show a dummy fight, but in weightlifting you would at least need to lift 20 kilos.
The movie needs to find a heroine who can lift so that people can see the nerves, the pressure of the body, the muscles. Any actress who comes in will have to be taught techniques, will need to train. Making a boxing movie isn’t as hard as a weightlifting movie,” she quips.
The Mary Kom biopic faced some belated flak for being culturally insensitive in its depiction when Priyanka Chopra was cast instead of an actress from the region of Magnificent Mary. Some would say that preserving the integrity of the experiences that Malleswari went through should be paramount.
But biopics in India can either dive deep into the social and cultural times that an athlete like Malleswari had to fend away, while being a dominant and multi-year champion in her sport — or veer towards a more formulaic and predictable ‘tribulations to triumphs’ narrative.
“A biopic would mean a big budget. But that budget is unlikely unless there are some known faces. We need a star because we’re investing 70 crore in the film and ultimately it has to be a balance between the actor and the production,” Reddy says.
“Mary Kom had a wider range because the casting had Priyanka Chopra in it. We can do a biopic in 10 crore also, but then not many people would watch the film,” she added, confirming that a Bollywood actress would be their preference when it came to casting for Malleswari.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines