They were on a break. Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi burned through an intense cricket frenzy in the '90s to shine a spotlight on tennis, with (simply put) a world-beating run. Labelled the "Indian Express," the duo won multiple grand slams and managed a still unbeaten streak of wins (doubles) at the Davis Cup: 24. Then differences began to surface between the two, and they decided to part ways.
Sporadically playing together at the Olympics, teasing about the good ol' days given their excellent record even when they played after many years, never really turned back the clocks to the golden age between '97 and 2000, when the duo reached number one rankings, and dominated a sport like few Indians have. Especially, then.
After almost two decades, the duo will address their abrupt uncoupling in a seven-part docuseries called Break Point, helmed by another fantastic duo of filmmakers: Ashwini Iyer-Tiwari and Nitesh Tiwari. Having directed films like Panga and Dangal, it might be hard to find someone more suited for the job.
When I mention (only half-kidding) how the "Lee-Hesh" split was arguably as big as the Ross and Rachel break-up in the hit TV show Friends, Bhupathi's eyes light up for a moment. "I like the Ross-Rachel reference, because even though they broke up, they stuck around in the same ecosystem. Similarly, we played together, we broke up, played again, and broke up again, but we were always around each other's ecosystem," Bhupathi tells me during a conference call.
Nitesh, a tennis fan since the 'Becker days,' mentions how he was keen on the project as a fan first. "So much was left unsaid about them, that as a fan, I was heartbroken. And when you're approached two decades later, it's an opportunity anyone would have liked," Nitesh said. Ashwini and Nitesh were approached by Vijay Subramaniam (former content head, Amazon Prime Video India), and according to the director duo it, was the fastest 'yes' they have said to any project. The idea was broached to both Bhupathi and Paes, after which they got on a Zoom call, and then the deal was sealed.
Paes was impressed with the director-duo's preparation when they first met, especially how they had etched out an episodic arc for the show with the help of co-writer Piyush Gupta, a regular collaborator on both Nitesh and Ashwini's projects. "We had a structure in our heads, and we went in with questions around incidents, and that's why it has shaped up to be as good as it has," Nitesh says.
Ashwini mentions how they focused on "the human side" of the sports icons. "We tried to tell the story in a character-driven way, where we're interspersing both perspectives on how events played out. We also tried to be thorough about the POVs depicted on the show " from journalists, rivals, legends from around the world,"she says.
Sports biopics or nonfiction content (especially in Hindi cinema) usually tend to become reverential or embellish their subjects with superhero-esque traits, thereby draining humanity out of the story. Were both Bhupathi and Paes inhibited about how their story would be told?
"I think the inhibitions were there for the last 20 years, when we said 'no' to every other offer.
Sometimes, there might have been an attractive offer made to him, and I didn't want it. There was an offer attractive to me, but he didn't want it. This time, I think we got the best team for the project. And we're overjoyed that the series is coming out on ZEE, India's biggest media house, because ours is the quintessential desi story. So it should be consumed in multiple Indian languages by the widest possible audience," says Paes.
Were the director-duo mindful about differentiating the show from the dozens of puff pieces parading as 'biopics' in Hindi cinema? "We wanted to tell the story not just for a fan, but also for the common man. It's not a puff piece, but a tell-all," Nitesh says. Ashwini adds how it is hard to 'tell it all,' however, the two tennis stars were incredibly comfortable and generous with their anecdotes from their playing days. "The endeavour has always been to make the documentary as comprehensive and as world-class as possible," she adds.
When asked if this documentary series is their way of exorcising the demons between him and Bhupathi over the last 20 years, Paes agrees. "I think it's more like healing. I think the way we were able to address certain issues around 20 years later, that we could maybe laugh about. Where we're able to look at archival footage and look at our body language and the looks that we're giving each other, that maybe if we would have done in 19999-2000, we would have communicated better. We might have played a little longer, who knows," Paes says.
Break Point will begin streaming on ZEE5 on from 1 October.