I was grumpy this Monday, as I readied to run slam-bang into weekday madness, after the high of a weekend packed with races. But then it hit a high note with an email announcing an event: a screening of the BAFTA-award winning documentary Senna and an interactive discussion with the director Asif Kapadia. So, Tuesday evening, I dropped everything at work and went running to the teeny-tiny Kunzum café. I have seen this documentary twice. But that didn’t matter. I wasn’t giving up the chance to ask Kapadia all these questions I had, and watch the documentary on a big screen.
It is tough making a film or writing a book, on a man who achieved so much, in such little time; a man who is a hero to many, an antagonist to a few, and who has over time, become a legend. There is so much that has already been said. There is so much that we all know. Yet, as I watched Senna again, I realized there was so much more I didn’t know.
I was transported into another dimension for those one-and-a-half hours – to a time when F1 was about passion, speed, and the Senna-Prost rivalry; where world champions were few and they fought hard and true for that right.
I was at home the first time I saw the movie, sitting cross-legged before the television, mouth agape, laughing, often smiling. In the beginning, my mom was amused with my reaction. But when Senna came to its logical end, at Imola in 1994, she was horrified. I was too. I’m 35 and it has been a while since I burst into tears after watching a documentary or a film. But Senna ripped out something and laid it bare. For me, he was alive in that moment. Just for that moment, he was alive again. That right there, is a rare film that stays with you for a long time. I realized too on Tuesday that it doesn’t matter how often I see the film. The impact is the same, heart-warming and gut wrenching. “You know that Senna died. But, we wanted the viewer to stay in the present, to forget, and then to feel that same shock the world felt when Senna crashed into the wall,” Kapadia said later.
Perhaps one of the most beautiful things about the film is that it doesn’t focus on Senna’s death. Any fan will tell you there’s more written about that weekend in Imola than anything else. The conspiracy theories, stories of cover-ups and technical failures are all out there on the World Wide Web. But, there are few that truly celebrate his life, the man he was, and what he stood for. That was the aim, Kapadia said later, after the credits rolled and the lights came on. There were so many Hollywood directors who wanted to make the film. Antonio Banderas wanted to play Ayrton, he said. But Ayrton’s family refused to say yes, because those films wanted to focus on that weekend in Imola. Senna however was different. The doors opened and Kapadia and his team entered Bernie Ecclestone’s hallowed archive halls. They scanned 15,000 hours of archival footage with edits that took them 3 years, before the writer Manish Pandey’s script finally became Senna.
It is perhaps right then that the documentary doesn’t deify Senna. Instead, the man is laid bare for all to see. Pandey, Kapadia, and producer James Gay-Rees wanted just that. Kapadia says initially Pandey’s 10-page outline had four main characters: Nelson Piquet, Nigel Mansell, Senna, and Alain Prost. They first made a 10-minute short film off YouTube (for research only), and realized that everything they wanted was right there in the archival footage, including the powerful ending. Kapadia says perhaps the best way to showcase Senna and his rivalries while showing all sides of the story, was through the footage, as that seemed the most real.
So there is the rivalry with Prost all laid out, as is his confrontation with Jean-Marie Balestre. Kapadia laughs then, recalling his interaction with the viewers in France. The French press, he says, gave him awful reviews. And later, as he talked to people, he almost felt like he was sitting in Senna’s position, defending him against Prost’s fans and Prost.
I could go on and on. This is after all, about Ayrton Senna. But I shouldn’t. All I can say is, Senna would have been 52 today. Tuesday evening was perhaps the best way to remember and celebrate my hero. Happy Birthday Ayrton. You are missed.
The screening and interactive discussion was held by Film Forward, a part of the Sundance Institute at the Kunzum Café, Hauz Khas village, New Delhi. Read more about the Film Forward project here.