19 years have passed since the death of Ayrton Senna, the most worshipped, the most inspiring, and the most intense racing driver ever to have lived among us. Documentaries and biographies paying tribute to the great man are plenty; in fact, you could find more books and films on Ayrton than most of the other great drivers combined. Such has been the impact of the Brazilian on the collective motor-racing psyche. But ‘Senna’ is a rather different documentary.
Although there have been numerous films on motor racing over the years, most of them have turned out to be seriously disappointing. More often than not, the plot would be wafer thin, the acting horrendous, the special effects non-existent, the editing rubbish and all those friends whom you managed to drag along to accompany you in watching it, would moan about it for years. But this time, if a racing-enthusiast-friend tells you this documentary does not require you to be a Senna fan or an F1 fan or even a motorsport fan for that matter, to appreciate it, believe them. Senna is an excellent film all on its own, and director Asif Kapadia has managed to make it enthralling to watch for seasoned F1 fans as well as people who have never heard of Ayrton before.
One of the strong points of the film is the style of narration. Instead of the all too familiar talking head interviews we have become used to over the years, Kapadia uses countless hours of hitherto unseen footage of Formula 1 to tell the story. Rather than listening to people around Senna recall various incidents from the Brazilian’s time in F1 (1984-1994), we now see it like it happened, with plenty of press conferences and behind the scenes footage to re-contextualise some of those events. The film primarily focuses on Senna’s F1 career, with Ayrton, his arch-rival Alain Prost and McLaren team boss Ron Dennis more or less slipping into the lead roles and telling the story in chronological order. With judicious editing, ‘Senna’ is impressive in the way the characters of Ayrton and Prost are developed – the contrast in their approach to racing and life as a whole is handled brilliantly.
Alain Prost Vs Ayrton Senna was one of the greatest battles in motorsport history, and as such, I expected the four-time title winning Frenchman to be portrayed as the villain. However, ‘The Professor’ as he was known as, is shown to be a bitter rival every inch of the way, but never as a baddie. That role is given to the then-reigning FIA President Jean-Marie Balestre and although you could argue he was not quite the eccentric, allegedly biased, high-handed boss as he is shown to be, several controversial decisions on incidents involving Senna and Prost didn’t help his cause. As a result, you see that Ayrton is the man fighting against the odds, against the mucky politics infesting the sport and his defiant attitude towards the deteriorating morality in his beloved sport is fascinating to watch.
I have seen several complaints that some of Senna’s ruthless actions on track, bordering on the unfair and sometimes dangerous, have been omitted, showing the three-time world champion as a competitive but faultless, saintly person. Controversial incidents like the battle at Portugal in 1988 which started the decline in the relationship, and the restart at Imola the next year could have been included. But I feel the amount of screen time that will be taken up by contextualizing those events does not justify what it contributes to the average viewer’s perception of Senna as a whole, at the end. It is impossible to make a documentary suitable for both F1 fans and the mainstream audience alike, without forgoing some details of the subject.
And one could hardly make a documentary spanning Senna’s F1 career without mentioning his supernatural qualifying lap at Monaco in 1988 and the collisions with Prost at Suzuka. Although the former requires no background colouring, hearing Senna’s thoughts on that lap will give you goosebumps for sure. The film also shows the crashes at Suzuka in a different light. Senna’s actions at the start of the 1990 Japanese GP seem almost justifiable, and it appears to be his way of giving Balestre and Prost the proverbial finger. Ruthless he may have been, but Senna always did what he believed was right, and was straightforward in word and deed. It is to the film’s credit that it manages to convey a great many things about the complex and extraordinary character of Ayrton without actually putting it into words, such as Senna’s concern for the safety of other drivers and his desire to help underprivileged children in Brazil.
Another scene worth mentioning is Senna’s first home win in 1991, in front of an adoring crowd at Interlagos, Brazil. He looked set for an easy win, but gearbox gremlins forced him to drive with just sixth gear working. In that ailing McLaren, he battled his opponents, battled against the elements and soldiered on towards the finish, with a roaring Sao Paulo crowd egging him on. I was a toddler then, and thanks to FOM’s TV footage policies, one does not have the privilege to travel to the past and live the excitement of those incredible races. Although I have read about Senna’s heroic victory that year, hearing his and the fans’ emotional response after he took the chequered flag put a lump in my throat. Ayrton was more than a philanthropic sportsman – he was a national hero, an inspiration for millions and a single blinding star on a dark Brazilian skyline.
Those few minutes after the race ought to be preserved as an example of the immense joy humanity is capable of inspiring in itself. In those glorious moments, the sport and it’s magnificent exponent transcended all boundaries to become one with it’s passionate fans. Every once in a while, sport blurs the line between competition and art – and Senna gave us those priceless moments so often, just like Gilles Villeneuve did before him. Watching the achingly gorgeous black-and-gold Lotus dancing in a straight line through the streets of Adelaide, the uncompetitive Toleman coming to life in the hands of a wet weather master at Monaco, you wish it will never end.
But the story goes on, and as the 1992 and 1993 championships flash by, you begin to dread the fact that it will invariably arrive at the black weekend at Imola in 1994. For it is much like watching ‘Titanic’ or ’300′. You admire the talent, the courage, the audacity, the defiance, the commitment, the dedication, the determination of the protagonist, and yet you know how the story ends – and you really don’t want that devastating end to come. There’s no avoiding it, however, and the aerial view of the Tamburello corner signals the beginning of the end, so to speak.
Thankfully, the film does not go into the details of Senna’s crash, instead preferring to conclude with the poignant scenes from his funeral. To see the one million people lining up on the streets, the tears and inconsolable grief on every face, the state funeral with three days of national mourning declared is quite an emotional sequence that you watch with a heavy heart.The final scene where Senna describes a cherished karting memory is also touching. At this point I would like to give a special mention to the music score by Antonio Pinto - producer Manish Pandey said in an interview that the Brazilian music director approached him and said he would do it without accepting any payment, as a tribute to Ayrton. And that feeling of love and loss shines through in his music - all the emotions it evokes are as intense as the man himself.
For me, the best thing about the film is the way it immortalises Ayrton the man, rather than Senna the superstar racer. It shows all the facets of Senna’s character, the competitive nature on track, the tenderness in helping the underprivileged, the concern for safety of the drivers, as well as the emotional responses to F1′s politically rooted controversies. It shows a man who loved and lived for racing, who followed his heart and remained true to himself. Yes he had his faults, but he fought against them, as hard as he fought the politics in the sport, his fellow competitors and his ill handling Williams FW16. I believe even if God had whispered in his ear about his impending accident, Senna would’ve taken that broken car around Imola to try and defy His will. And it is that defiance that defined Ayrton Senna as a human being, a rather remarkable human being at that. ‘Senna’ is a fitting tribute to this fantastic man blessed with supreme skill and a beautiful soul. It is a great film by itself, and in my opinion, by far the greatest film on motor racing ever made.
Click this link to view the trailer http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QOQLeqRcgKc