The film Mary Kom screened on the opening day of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), heralding the festival’s very first Press Conference. It was attended by its lead actress Priyanka Chopra and first-time director Omung Kumar. The two jetted in for just a day, which in the evening included a packed gala red carpet followed by TIFF director Cameron Bailey introducing the two to a delighted full-to-the-brim fans of Priyanka (she was centre-stage at the festival in 2009 when Ashutosh Gowariker’s What’s Your Raashee? was screened). Priyanka first apologised for keeping the media waiting, disarming everyone by saying “Our flight was late and then the traffic closer to this venue was so bad that we left the car and ran the rest of the distance to be here."

Extracts follow from the Press Conference which went on longer than the prescribed time

Why was Toronto chosen for the film’s world premiere with the film opening the next day in India?

The culture of India, I feel, is so tremendously interesting that it’s pulling a lot more of an audience . . . globally it’s opening up. Besides, TIFF is a foremost world festival and a window to distribution within Canada and the United States. So it was a conscious decision . . . to come to TIFF. I have attended TIFF before – I love the festival and I love the city.

You seem to choose unusual and demanding films to work in – why is that?

I like to push the envelope when it comes to my roles. I veer towards roles that are different and challenging – roles that change the rules of the game. I started very young – I was 18 or 19 - and I had no idea of career manoeuvres involved in working in films. I have a short-term memory – I need variety to evolve as a person and as a performer. I have always read scripts very carefully and if it tells me that it is one that I myself would like to watch on screen, I end up taking it. You have to come to me with a whammer!

What drew you to Mary Kom and its true-life story on the famous Boxing Champ and Olympic bronze medallist who grew up as the daughter of a rice farmer in Assam and faced discrimination in her determination to be a boxer?.

In a country where cricket is the sport and movies about athletes, let alone female, previously unheard of, Mary Kom’s story is inspirational and uplifting, specially to women. Sports in India is something that boys do. She proved that for a woman no idea, no goal, should be a deterrent, something I deeply believe in. Besides, there are very few woman-centric roles for women, specially in India. I hope the film will open doors for such films and for aspiring, talented women actors.

How did you prepare for such a difficult role?

It was extremely tough. Such a role - which involves learning boxing- needs three years preparation. I had six months when I was doing other work alongside. I trained with world experts and also from Mary Kom, and Mary Kom’s own teachers to imbibe her particular style. I never dreamt it would take so much out of me . After hours of training my body would hurt in places I never knew existed. Besides, I had to learn the specifics of the region, Manipur, where Mary Kom was raised and trained. The film is also very personal to me. My father was ailing throughout the film's making and he died four days after the shoot was completed. I poured all my grief into the film.

Omung, as a first-time director, why did you chose this film?

I wanted to start with a subject that was one apart, strikingly different from the mainstream offerings. And Mary Kom was a beacon here.
The settings although low-key are so authentic, so natural, How did you manage that?
That credit goes entirely to my wife Vanita - she is the Production Designer . The film was re-created in Manali and Dharamsala – it was not shot in Manipuri. Whole structures and scenes were built and set up afresh.

Is the film true to life, to what really happened?

Everything you see on screen is factual – the only slight liberties are those a filmmaker has to in order to condense twelve years into two hours.
What is important is that Mary Kom loves the film (Priyanka interrupts here to say “She calls it her photo album!”).

And was it difficult to pin down Priyanka?

Not at all – one reading and she was all for it!