Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Information from around the world suggests that sporting events may reappear in the months ahead but scale of participation could be limited. Race organizers have responded in different ways. With events featuring more than 5000 persons prohibited in Germany till October 24, the 2020 Berlin Marathon scheduled for September was called off. A similar ban on large scale events in France till mid-July, saw the 2020 Tour de France postponed to August-September. Meanwhile it was reported (The Guardian, April 24, 2020) that the organizers of the London Marathon – postponed to October due to COVID-19 – are not ruling out an edition restricted to just elites. In March this year, the 2020 Tokyo Marathon was run with only elite athletes. All this puts corresponding reality check on expectations in India, where what was initially a three-week lockdown was subsequently extended to May 3 and then further to May 17. At the same time, amateur athletes appear to have transitioned from initial discomfort with altered pattern of life to evolving routines and staying engaged despite lockdown.  Their initiative notwithstanding, fact remains, there is only so much you can do amidst restricted life. We spoke to a few coaches (running, cycling & swimming) and a physiotherapist for their take on the predicament:    

Nigel Smith (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Nigel Smith

“ The health of our cyclists is our number one priority,’’ Nigel Smith, Head Coach of Kanakia Scott Racing Development, said of training plans amid lockdown. Initially when the lockdown was presented as 21 days long, planning had been on those lines with focus on endurance, speed and strength. At the time of writing, that original 21-day lockdown stood extended to May 17 with people keeping their fingers crossed on how things may play out thereafter for the various zones identified on the basis of disease intensity. Not to mention – potential for relapse and what action may be taken thereby. In short, things are still very unclear as regards when normalcy may return and outdoor activity may resume. According to Nigel, it should perhaps be accepted as a given that all cyclists in India are going to lose some of their endurance, speed and strength during the period of lockdown. “ We have to manage that decline and keep it as low as possible,’’ he said.

Manage – that is the correct word for although cyclists are fortunate to have home trainers that helps keep them in the saddle and pedaling, it cannot be a complete replacement for the outdoor experience. The advantage of the home trainer is its contained environment permitting measurement of all parameters from heart rate to power output. “ But one thing you find hard to do is riding long,’’ Nigel said. Thanks to ambiance with less distraction, an hour on the home trainer is roughly equal to an hour and a half spent cycling outdoors. “ I have been pushing our cyclists to do around two hours, which approximates three hours in the outdoors. That is the sensible limit. Beyond that it is a struggle to stay motivated on the home trainer,’’ he said. He has given his cyclists drills which peak at around 200 rpm; he has also devised strength drills that involve pedaling in high gear with high resistance. “ It becomes a muscular, strength driven drill,’’ he said. While the app Zwift has found popularity with cyclists during lockdown, Nigel is not a fan of using it in excess. As coach, he has his own plans that demand specific performance from cyclist as per schedule. “ A big week for us typically entails riding for 18-20 hours. That means there will be two to three rides of 4-5 hours each. The joy in Zwift is the immersive ambiance it provides; it could be tackling a particular route virtually or racing with others. When you do too much of that, on the days you must deliver as per training schedule you may find yourself tired,’’ Nigel said, adding over-training and injury should be avoided during lockdown. Sleep, rest, recovery – all these matter.

In fact, he encourages avenues to reduce stress. “ One of my cyclists is looking after a pair of baby squirrels that were abandoned by their parents. He speaks to me about it. I find that the act of caring for those squirrels makes him happy. Another cyclist loves to read books. He finds that a nice way to relax. Yet another is into chess,’’ Nigel said. As coach, he has the ability to monitor online how his cyclists are training. Given the current environment he is gentler with feedback. “ Normally I would be a little harder with them. Now I am softer and more collaborative,’’ he said.

Nigel appeared at ease with lockdown’s progression. He didn’t seem to be in any hurry to get it over with and return to cycling outdoors. As and when things restart, there will be matters of safety to self and others to consider and protocols to follow. “ Sport is a privilege. There are several other issues that matter more. I would want my riders to lead by example,’’ he said.

Dnyaneshwar Tidke (Photo: courtesy Dnyaneshwar)

Dnyaneshwar Tidke

Among the best known amateur runners in the Mumbai region, Dnyaneshwar Tidke aka Don, is a coach with Life Pacers, a Navi Mumbai-based fitness and marathon training group. When the first 21 day-lockdown was announced by the government, Don embarked on a 21-day workout plan.

“ I would post a list of exercises and follow it up with a video representation of the workouts on the Whatsapp group of trainees,” Dnyaneshwar said. Many of the trainees would meticulously follow the schedule and report back on their progress. Most of the runners in his group are otherwise engaged full-time in their work and fitness including running is largely a recreational activity. “ Now, they are confined to their homes, probably bored and consuming more calories than usual. They need something to sustain. These workouts will help them stay motivated. The best part of the lockdown is the access to home-cooked food and rest,’’ he said.

When the lockdown got extended, Dnyaneshwar opted to pose a challenge in the fitness / workout plan, asking runners to follow a schedule with reps and sets. “ I do not encourage running indoors,’’ he pointed out. Among ways the lockdown can be endured is to make sure that whatever exercise regimen one is following does not become monotonous. Don has been experimenting with suitable methods. Given he deals with two training groups in the Navi Mumbai region, he sometimes encourages a friendly online competition among those participating in the workout sessions. He has also assigned an exercise to every letter in the alphabet. When the name of a popular athlete is selected, a sequence of exercises becomes visible. “ The idea is to have some fun,’’ Dnyaneshwar said. But all can’t be left to such tactics. With no clarity on racing calendar and no races thereby to pick for goal, there is an element of self-motivation required to endure lockdown. “ You have to tell yourself that you are doing these workouts for your own health, to stay fit and be in good condition for as and when the situation alters and you are able to run again,’’ he said.

Samson Sequeira (Photo: courtesy Samson)

Samson Sequeira

Samson Sequeira, coach at Run India Run, a Mumbai-based marathon training group, does not recommend running indoors. “ Suddenly, in this lockdown phase there is this new fad of running inside the house. It can cause structural damage to the body and weaken some of the muscles,’’ he said. Also, many people running indoors are transitioning to barefoot running, which can have an impact because of the sudden change in style.

According to him, in the initial phase of the lockdown, runners were not sure how to continue with their fitness program. Being used to running outside, focusing attention on a home-based workout was not easy for all.  “ I made about six videos which address various aspects of training with varying degrees of difficulty,’’ Samson said.

The key message from Samson to his trainees is that focusing on other aspects of training will augur well in the long run. “ There will not be a marathon anytime soon. Therefore, there is nothing to worry about immediately,” he said.

Savio D’Souza (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Savio D’Souza

Mumbai-based coach Savio D’ Souza anchors the marathon training group, Savio’s Stars. A former national champion in the marathon, he put the current predicament in perspective using a few simple points taken from the running calendar and everyone’s experience as recreational runners. The lockdown in India commenced in late March. “ April-May is peak summer. During that time, most people don’t run much. Besides these months also coincide with the school vacation period and are usually the time people take holidays. At present nobody is traveling on holiday. Everybody is locked down. But the fact remains these are not highly active months in the running calendar. Even if these months were normal and our group was running as usual, we would be doing only short easy runs. So the loss due to lockdown isn’t much,’’ he said. Second, there is the issue of what you should be doing, cooped up as you are in your apartment or house. To that, Savio pointed out that the right approach would probably be for recreational runners to catch up on what they often fail to do – do some strength training. “ We just keep on running and running, neglecting to do the recommended exercises. Now is a good time to do all that. You may not be able to run but you can look at the present situation as opportunity to do the exercises you typically overlook,’’ he said. For his own trainees, Savio said he has left them with simple exercises to pursue during lockdown.

Asked about the trend of people covering long distances indoors, Savio said that it is not up to him to question what anyone wishes to do. But he illustrated the context. In thickly populated metros like Mumbai, it is the odd person who can afford a spacious apartment or a private courtyard. Most people live in small spaces. Depending on location and severity of lockdown, the predicament has also meant access denied to what little courtyard is there in housing societies. This means you end up running within your house, in very limited space. It contrasts our natural understanding of what a run is. But what about the worry in restless mind that if you don’t push yourself during lockdown you risk fading by the time normalcy returns? Savio feels that when the lockdown is lifted and recreational runners are allowed back on the road (as and when that happens) everyone will be starting from basics. People will need to gradually train their way up. “ All of us will have to do that anyway,’’ he said about the inescapable curve. That’s why investing in what you normally ignore – strength training and general fitness, and keeping the load mild so that injury is avoided, makes sense. Where this approach may differ is in the case of elite athletes. But as Savio pointed out, even in the case of Olympics postponed, the lead time is not a few months; it is a whole year. That is oblique acknowledgement of training processes needing time to deliver.

Savio’s trainees include the runners from Ladakh, who have over the years become a familiar sight in Mumbai in the months around the annual Mumbai Marathon. “ They are now doing easy workouts in Ladakh. Given lockdown, there is no point in me sending them a training plan at this stage. We will wait and see how their lockdown evolves and then decide what to do,’’ Savio said.

Daniel Vaz (Photo: courtesy Daniel)

Daniel Vaz

Daniel Vaz, coach with Road Burners, a marathon training group, has developed seven home workout plans that are based on running and work the same muscles used while running outdoors. “ These workouts are a combination of cardio exercises, which help elevate heartbeat and focus on endurance and strength building,” Daniel said.

Two key workouts designed by Daniel are called Locomotive Breath and Mojo Rising, both names inspired by popular rock music. Locomotive Breath is a single from Jethro Tull’s 1971 album Aqualung; it was among the band’s largest selling albums. As reinterpreted by Daniel, Locomotive Breath is a workout that helps elevate heartbeat, addresses functional aspects of running and trains the muscles in the same way a run would.

The name Mojo Rising is drawn from Mr Mojo Rising, the anagram of rock star, Jim Morrison; it also featured famously in the hit song by Doors: L.A. Woman. The intensity of the workout christened so by Daniel is akin to a weekend’s long run. “ Runners who are used to big mileages are able to do some of these workouts with short rest periods,” he said.

Daniel has also promoted skipping. Some of the workouts featuring skipping, help keep the sense of challenge going during times of lockdown, he pointed out. “ During the lockdown, I have actually not taken a day’s break from workout. I found that it is possible to take rest anytime during the day as we are now home bound. Earlier, the rest day was mandatory as most runners were involved in full-time job apart from running,” he said.

Ashok Nath (This photo was downloaded from Ashok Nath’s Facebook page)

Ashok Nath

Many of Ashok Nath’s mentees are doctors and most are over 40 years of age. “ They are slowly discovering that there is life beyond racing and competition,” the Bengaluru-based coach and mentor, said of life under lockdown.

Ashok devised five versions of quarantine workouts suitable for runners in his group. It addresses their diverse capabilities. He also sent a questionnaire to each of his mentees to make an assessment. Based on the feedback the workouts were adjusted for each of the mentees. Some people have space to run; they have access to stairs, terrace or a gym. “ There are six drills one can do on the stairs including speed workout, strength training and long run among others,” he said.

Skipping is another workout that most people can do. “ As there are no running events for the next few months, there is no pressure to be ready for races,” Ashok said. He does not recommend running inside the house. Running inside the house requires constant attention; it does not make for a pleasant experience. “ Running has three phase – warm-up, zoning out and fatigue. Running inside the house does not allow the runner to disassociate from the surroundings,” he said. This is the time to focus on bio-mechanics and strength, he pointed out. Maintaining a certain level of fitness is adequate at the current juncture especially given the absence of any immediate races, he said. For elite runners, the approach would probably be different as running is their main activity.

Asked how one can stay motivated amidst lockdown and no clarity on the return of races, Ashok said that a bit of self-motivation should help. Two things matter in this scenario. The first is hope or that proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. “ I think most runners are past the initial phase of discomfort with the lockdown. They have since settled into some schedule or the other. There is also the emergent feeling that we are beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel. That helps for motivation,’’ he said. Second, of further assistance in this regard, is the shared feeling of everyone being in the same boat so far. Self-motivation may be called for if the region you are in takes longer to become normal.

Gokul Kamat (Photo: courtesy Gokul)

Gokul Kamat

The lockdown has been hard on swimmers. While cyclists can partly compensate for open road denied with their home trainers and runners have found a poorer version of the cyclist’s panacea by logging miles inside their houses, swimmers have lost access to swimming pools with nothing to properly compensate. Gokul Kamat, head coach in swimming and head of the sports complex at Fr Agnel Multipurpose School, an educational institution in Vashi, Navi Mumbai, known for its strength in swimming, said that those training there have been told to follow three points. The first is to make sure there is no undue weight gain during lockdown. Second, they have been provided exercises, which can be done freehand or with minimal equipment at home. “ Some of these workouts are designed to get their heart rate up; some are for improving muscle strength,’’ Gokul said. Additionally, the trainees have the option of joining their coaches on interactive video-based training sessions. How much will this compensate for lack of access to the pool? “ Honestly, not much. But the point is – swimmers know these exercises and do them even otherwise to stay in shape. If they keep doing these workouts during lockdown, then, as and when normalcy returns and pools reopen, they would take less time to regain their regular form,’’ Gokul said.

Suchita Varadkar (Photo: courtesy Suchita)

Suchita Varadkar

Ever since the lockdown commenced, Suchita Varadkar, coach, Frontrunners, a running and fitness group, has shifted to online sessions five times a week. Prior to lockdown, Suchita held sessions three times a week for each of the two Mumbai-based groups of Frontrunners.

“ We have opted for the pro version of Zoom for the current daily sessions. These sessions incorporate various elements of fitness including yoga, cardio workout, tabata and strength training,” she said. To keep the group motivated, she has initiated a plank challenge, which entails increasing the workout by ten seconds every day.

“ Also, once a week we do Suryanamaskars and we have been increasing the count of the sets every week,” she said. Suchita is also not a fan of running indoors. “ This is a good time to improve strength training so that runners are better geared for running as and when it resumes,” she said.

Dr Abhishek Bangera (Photo: courtesy Dr Bangera)

Dr Abhishek Bangera

The active lifestyle-ecosystem is never complete without a physiotherapist. Mumbai-based Dr Abhishek Bangera is a familiar face at marathons and endurance events in the city; his team of physiotherapists can be seen managing the recovery station at various meets. When lockdown manifested with physiotherapy clinics shut alongside, it meant all those wedded to the active lifestyle finding their physiotherapist out of reach. It was a critical link suddenly gone missing from the active lifestyle-ecosystem, even as amateur athletes tried their best to stay active pursuing workouts and such. What do you do if you hurt yourself or messed up pushing beyond advisable limit?

Following lockdown, Dr Bangera shifted to keeping in touch with patients online. He regularly texted useful advice and commenced the option of tele-consulting. At the time of writing (by when lockdown had been extended to the middle of May), he was hoping to restart his practice. This blog’s specific query to him was about precautions to be taken while staying active at home in an environment where injury can’t be addressed as easily as before.

Dr Bangera then shared a portion of text he had dispatched earlier to his online community:

With all the inspirational home workout videos, HIIT routines, asanas, indoor running stats etc being posted everywhere, a word of caution and a word of reassurance follows: While it is good that you have taken the initiative to maintain or start with your physical fitness, if it’s a new type of physically taxing activity that you were not used to prior to the quarantine lockdown, you need to be cautious. The things, to look out for to avoid injury:

Do not skip warm up and cool down. Understand the correct form of exercises. Don’t be overconfident / over enthusiastic in your ability to perform. Avoid jerky ballistic movements. Activity should be upgraded gradually. Avoid sharp pivoting turns while walking / running indoors. Avoid hard landing during aerobics and running. Don’t fall for challenges out of peer or self-induced pressure for posting the next post or to indulge in one-upmanship. Consider one-to-one supervised and individualized tele-classes with your trainer.

(The authors, Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon, are independent journalists based in Mumbai.)


Irrfan Khan (This photo was downloaded from the actor’s Facebook page. No copyright infringement intended)

What makes a good actor?

There is no one answer.

For the generation preceding mine, a great film and actor therein usually entailed drama. The elders grew up imagining family, men who protected, provided and were larger than life. When things became emotional in story (which was quite often) their actors sang, danced or emitted fiery dialogue, mediums within medium to amplify the drama. The realities shaping me were different. The world had become so overcrowded and competitive, that playing the old role of guardian either drained you or distracted you from better things to do. Women had become assertive and independent.  Not everyone dreamt of raising family. Many of us were no longer galloping on horseback for conquest and imagery. We didn’t want to. It wasn’t irrelevant for human being to right-size, even down-size and be part of the woodwork. We existed and were noticed only when we let ourselves be.

Needless to say, with this for my reality, I generally avoided Bollywood, still pushing king sized life. Not to mention – those inevitable song and dance routines, big, fat weddings and stylized feudalism. There were exceptions but you know what exception means; it isn’t the rule. One such exception was the 2012 movie – ` Paan Singh Tomar.’ That was the first time, I really noticed Irrfan Khan or maybe I should say he let me notice him. It was a good film (its production quality could have been better) and for me, easier to digest than the muscular, sharp-edged format the Milkha Singh biopic of 2013 embraced. Set in the past with matching period quality to movie, the sight of Irrfan Khan running on track harked of the simple, understated elegance seen earlier in films like ` Chariots of Fire.’ As the film on the athlete-turned-bandit faded from my memory, so did thoughts of Irrfan Khan. It was easy to live with his performances. He was already appearing in foreign productions – by end 2012 there were the ` The Namesake,’ ` Slumdog Millionaire,’ ` The Amazing Spiderman’ and ` Life of Pi’ – and his restrained style never threatened to settle like a big star or unquestionable institution in my head. In September 2013 a remarkable and utterly down to earth movie, ` The Lunchbox,’ released. It was a delightful film. I still recall leaving the theater thinking how beautiful Nimrat Kaur looked and with Irrfan Khan’s Saajan Fernandes, comfortably etched in my conscience as character emerging from Mumbai’s woodwork to grab my attention and then, disappearing back into it. That emergence and disappearance is just what life in big city is. Two years later, in 2015, it was ` Piku.’

By now, there was a pattern defining Irrfan Khan to me. He was a talented actor with capacity not to have any of his performances rest heavily on my mind. His was the very opposite of the dramatic dialogues to self in mirror, dialogues with God and eloquent speech before villain that were the hallmark of old Bollywood and still refused to vacate space totally. Irrfan felt light. Even the foreign productions he acted in were executed differently from traditional expectations. In years gone by, it was assumed that the barrier between Indian actors and opportunities in Hollywood was language; how you spoke English. Native diction was leveraged to either show servility and backwardness or invite mockery. Irrfan’s roles paid scant respect to that concern. He spoke English in the foreign productions confidently and as best as he could without straining to sound Hollywood-ish. You saw him hold his ground. From trying to impress, we appeared shifting to substance; defying stereotypes. For me, as viewer, that was yet another instance of him reflecting changed realities.

Another way of putting it would be: Irrfan was fantastic at being us; faceless and nameless with subtleties for high points, a dead eyed look to seem insensitive or a reluctant smile to convey connection and empathy. Like good writing, he went beyond immediate business paradigm deciding fame and reward, and perfected the craft. No fat, just lean delivery – that became his style. Embellishment was there, but sparse. He was a natural at working magic with less. All of this completely contrasted Bollywood’s known idiom of cliché and exaggeration passed off as acting. The last film starring Irrfan I saw was ` Karwaan.’

Irrfan Khan was in many ways, the cure Bollywood sorely required. Select vernacular film industries in India had already experimented with reality and changed. But a large section of Bollywood as well as portions of vernacular film industry reluctant to severe their umbilical cord with the old, were still battling inertia. They continued subjecting change to tradition and market, a situation aptly summed up by the late Rishi Kapoor when he pointed out that the market gets what it wants. The likes of Irrfan and the films they elected to act in conveyed hope of change. With Irrfan’s passing on April 29 a section of us – a section often denied expression by Bollywood – lost its face on screen.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)



This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of the TV series. No copyright infringement intended.

In 1999, actor-producer-director Robert Elmer Balaban asked film director, Robert Altman, if they could collaborate on a country house murder mystery. Altman chose Julian Fellowes, British actor and writer, to prepare the screenplay. The result was the 2001 movie, ` Gosford Park.’ Besides being murder mystery, it was a study of the British class system of the 1930s as outlined by the owners of the country house, their guests – all of them upper class and wealthy – and the staff taking care of their needs. Featuring an ensemble cast, the film was a commercial success. It was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won Fellowes an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.

Almost 20 years later, the Fellowes touch – reminiscent of Gosford Park’s class study – may be tangibly felt in the TV series ` The English Game,’ released on Netflix in March 2020. The series wherein Fellowes has contributed to both writing and production, examines British football of the 1870s. At that time, it was a game controlled by the upper classes with social confrontation brewing thanks to an army of talent assuming shape in the ranks of the working class. The upper class, cocooned in tradition and comfort, treats the game as an extension of their lifestyle and licence to dominate. The working class, struggling to make ends meet, sees it as avenue for self-expression, an opportunity to level the social field and increasingly, as means to move up in life. At the heart of that last option is the early lot of talented players, paid money to represent working class teams. Given prevailing rules (it is the years before professional players became acceptable), such deals have to be kept a secret and when eventually sniffed out, critics view it as contamination of sport by commerce. Today, professional players and club transfers are part of football. The story as told by the TV series unfolds through an array of characters representing the class divide along with three footballs teams illustrating the predicament – Old Etonians, Darwen FC and Blackburn.

I haven’t seen ` Gosford Park.’ But the urge to read about that film and catch what little I could of it from the Internet was pronounced because well into ` The English Game’ it became evident that it wasn’t about football wizardry; it was about showing us a stage in the game’s evolution in the UK. The beautiful game is here a vehicle for acquainting us with a slice of old history, well emphasized therein being the class divide of early football and how view of world by sport eventually shifts perspective for those loving the game. Talent knows no class and you cannot stop the march of talent. ` The English Game’ is a well-made, well-acted series that should additionally interest audiences in India for a small detail tucked away in two inaccuracies related to the sport’s history, cited on Wikipedia.

The first inaccuracy in depiction of historical facts relates to overall time. The series gives the impression that its narrative happens in one season while in reality Ferguson Suter – one of the two main protagonists – took six seasons to be part of a FA Cup winning side. Second at the time of the incidents portrayed, Blackburn (shown as one team in the series) had two teams – Blackburn Olympic and Blackburn Rovers. The former is noteworthy as the first team from the north of England and the first from a working class backdrop to win the FA Cup, the country’s leading competition. This occurred in 1882-83. But Blackburn Olympic did not enjoy such success afterwards. The following year Blackburn Rovers won in the final and in the year after that, Olympic lost to Rovers in the second round. When the Football League was formed in 1888 with rule alongside that there could be only one club from each town or city participating, it meant Olympic out and Rovers in for Blackburn. In September 1889, Olympic shut down. In 2010, the Indian conglomerate V. H. Group with headquarters in Pune, bought Blackburn Rovers for 23 million pounds.

All in all, ` The English Game’ is a series worth watching. It captures a period of transition in the game; a transition well encapsulated by Suter’s observation in the series that if Blackburn isn’t allowed to play (over hired players present in its line-up) then those suffering won’t be just the players but also working class supporters, who after days of arduous work look forward to world recast by the talent of their local football team. See this series for early English football and a sense of what changed it. Not to mention – amid the wealth and big stars of today’s football, the series reminds you who actually forms the bedrock of support for the game.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)


This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of the TV series. No copyright infringement intended.

Among the many types of stories out there, the one about the underdog has always appealed.

We like a win. When the journey to victory is a case of clawing your way up from the bottom of the heap, we applaud. That’s the attraction in such stories.

The TV series ` Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C. J. Walker,’ released in March 2020 on Netflix falls in this category. It tells the story of Madam C. J. Walker (born Sarah Breedlove), the first self-made African American woman millionaire in the US. The series is based on the biography, ` On Her Own Ground,’ by A’Lelia Bundles.

The TV series picks up Sarah Breedlove’s story at that stage in her life when she is trying to sell Addie Monroe’s “ Magical Hair Grower’’ in St Louis, Missouri. The year is 1908. A washerwoman, struggling to make ends meet, we are told through flashback that Sarah had suffered from severe dandruff and hair loss. It was a condition commonly found in the community, particularly among its poor sections having no access to good quality housing. To compound matters, her then husband – John Davis, was abusive. That’s when she meets Addie Monroe, also African American, who has a cream she made that can fix the hair problem. It works for Sarah. Impressed, she takes it upon herself to be a saleswoman for Addie but the latter – she is much better looking than Sarah and believes that looks matter for selling products – discourages the washerwoman and tells her to stick to her existing profession. This angers Sarah. She creates her own line of products, which given her new marriage to Charles Joseph Walker is sold under the brand: Madam C. J. Walker. That’s also how Sarah who begins to identify herself more and more with her work to the expense of all else, prefers to be called.

The story revolves around Madame Walker’s struggles as a woman, a woman of color and a wife, to steer her business to success. Funding is a big challenge. Hair care products for colored women don’t appeal to the men who control money.  Further, she is an unheard of woman and enjoys no recommendation from well-known names in society. But that does not dilute her drive. Sarah does not hesitate to dream of building up scale – setting up a factory – and becoming a millionaire like some men had already done in the US. The obsession creates rifts between her and her husband (Charles Joseph Walker is her third husband). And all the while there is the competition posed by the better looking Addie and her hair care products. She is as ambitious as Sarah and willing to play dirty to achieve her ends. Sarah’s story is as much rags to riches as it is a close look at old school capitalism. Above all it gives you a peek into what enterprise meant to a woman – a colored woman – those days; the difficulties she faced and the resolve she had to dip into to motivate self and achieve.

The casting is spot on and Octavia Spencer has done a damn good job, essaying the lead role of Sarah aka Madam C.J. Walker. The travails faced by the woman entrepreneur come through. However it must be pointed out that the narrative in the TV series is not completely true; some liberties have been taken with the characters. For example, Addie Monroe is a fictional character based on Addie Malone, who actually existed and was among the earliest African American woman millionaires. In real life, Addie – she too was in hair care products – is not said to have been as villainous as she is made to seem in the series. Also, Sarah’s daughter is portrayed as a lesbian in the series; in real life, that wasn’t the case. Wikipedia mentions both these departures from the truth.  The departures add spice to the story, especially the competition between the two women entrepreneurs, which provides palpable tension for several episodes of the series.

There is also a mild absence of the regular magic you associate with underdog stories mainly because Madam Walker’s character is firmly rooted in the human. We see her marriage to Charles Joseph Walker fail; as she becomes more involved with her work, he feels neglected and indulges in adultery. He also demands his share of importance given the business bears the Walker surname although the hard work and relentless commitment to enterprise is mostly his wife’s. It would seem the price every independent woman hauling the cross of tradition is forced to pay. But despite her own ascent through unflinching focus on business, Sarah ends up demanding a baby from her daughter for a business without heir is journey without purpose and continuity. Fiction or otherwise, at that point the modernity and liberalism you associate with the Madam Walker story falters before it is restored to dignity through recourse to adoption.

All in all, a fantastic story and a pretty well made TV series. It is recommended viewing, whether you have ample hair on your head or much less like me.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)