Rise of the Spirit of Sport in Hindi Cinema

Susanto Sen By Susanto Sen, 14th Aug 2013 | Follow this author | RSS Feed | Short URL http://nut.bz/2b909oyv/
Posted in Wikinut>Writing>Columns & Opinions

“No one knew me when I ran for the country. But now that I have become a bandit, everyone chants my name.” These harrowing words of an Indian athlete Paan Singh Tomar still twitch the heart. The state of sports in India has been all but tragic and the Indian films can only brood over them. Even with this melancholy, Hindi movies are still trying to send forth a ray of optimism… if only we could beget some sportspeople in future who could bring fame to India.

Sporting Enigma in India

India has been known for its calibre in anything but sports in these modern times. In this age of knowledge and information, recent history is testimony that sports were never a forte for India even though it grew in due time to be a great desire for India’s nationalist cause. With the repeated failures and lack of proper infrastructure for the development of sports in India since the last century, this long-lasting desire could only remain unfulfilled even at the passing of the twentieth century. At the pinnacle of sporting excellence—the Olympics—many little countries of the world have shown their superiority against India much to the embarrassment of this second most populated and the seventh largest nation of the world. The only consolation, however, is that India could garner eight overall gold medals in the Olympics in the previous century and that too in the team sport called hockey. Thinking otherwise, an individual like Michael Phelps of U.S.A. won eight gold medals in just a single Olympics (Beijing 2008), much less than the 24 Olympics of the entire twentieth century. However, with this lone eminence of India, hockey got endorsed as the national game of India. But the nation had not yet won any individual gold or even silver in the Olympics since its modern inception until the passing of the twentieth century. Although two silver medals were won by an Englishman called Norman Pritchard who represented the British Raj in India in the 1900 Paris Olympics, yet a silver or gold by an indigenous Indian was still elusive. But with the Somali born Mo Farah winning the Olympic and world championship gold medals for Britain lately, even the silver medals won by Norman seems plausible for the Indian fame. Even with that, India is still lagging far behind in international sporting achievements with respect to the proportion of its size and population in the whole world. However, things seem to be changing a little now, with India winning an individual gold, two silvers and six bronzes overall in the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games. Far from being outstanding, this is at least a modest start for India in international sports. But we are still waiting to see what the future has in store for India.

India and its people had always pinned their hopes in cricket so that the world could at least yield a regard for India as an elite cricketing nation. The rise of cricket came just about at a time when Indian hockey was nearing its decline. It was then that India had just won the Cricket World Cup for the first time in 1983. The last gold medal which India could garner in hockey was in 1980 and since then, the slide has only been downwards with India never winning another hockey medal in the Olympics till date. There were only three individual medal winners at the Olympics in the twentieth century for India and they were all bronze. First, KD Jadhav had won a bronze in wrestling at the 1952 Helsinki Olympic Games and then, much later in 1996 Atlanta Games, Leander Paes won a bronze in Tennis singles. The only remaining individual medal for India was again a bronze from Karnam Malleshwari in weightlifting at the 2000 Sydney Games. The crawl paced respite for India came in the year 2004 Athens Olympics with Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore winning the first Olympic silver for India that for its rarity the little piece of silver became more valuable than pure gold to India. It was then the turn of the Beijing Olympics of 2008 and the London Olympics of 2012. With a gold and two bronzes in Beijing Olympics, two silvers and four bronzes in London Olympics, a journey of sporting fame seems arising for India. Added to that, the performance of the Delhi Commonwealth Games of 2010 gave India the coveted second place overall among commonwealth nations with a medal tally totalling 101. These recent achievements can hopefully give the necessary impetus to Indian sport.

Even if there has been some fanfare lately for sports like wrestling, shooting, boxing and badminton in India, the main attraction for Indians has been cricket since a good period of time. A vast majority of people interested in sports in India follow cricket more than any other sport. This is also true about training of sportsmen. The number of children and youth who are trained for cricket in India is overwhelmingly more than that of any other sport. In a brighter perspective, it is good for Indian cricket, but the darker side of it is that it has caused an imbalance in sports participation. Even a world class sport like soccer has few candidates. Perhaps, the reason why cricket has more takers is because it is physically less demanding than sports like soccer, basketball, athletics, swimming, or gymnastics. The general physical structure of Indians dissuades them from competing in such physically demanding sports. Physicality is only a minor reason. The greater reason, however, is the lack of facilities and proper training in India. There isn’t even a political backing for this endeavour. The backing which is arising only recently is from business tycoons and film makers. These tycoons are currently spending money to train exceptional players for some leagues like the Indian Premier League or the Indian Badminton League. Eventually, this exposure tends to discover or train elites. On the other hand, the film makers exalt the sporting feats of the nation, encouraging the youth to at least be healthy if not become professional sportsmen.

Lately, there have been some Bollywood film makers who have created some sporting hits for the Indian audience. Most of these Bollywood movies depict the Indian interest and excellence in cricket, whereas, only a few depict other sports. The earliest Bollywood hit was possibly the 1992 movie ‘Jo Jeeta Wahi Sikandar’ starring Aamir Khan, which depicted the sport of cycling. The next hit ‘Lagaan’ of 2001 was also an Aamir Khan starrer that depicted the game of cricket. After a long gap, there came two more hits; ‘Chak De India’ of 2007 was a Shah Rukh Khan starrer and ‘Paan Singh Tomar’ of 2010 was an Irfan Khan starrer. The former was about hockey, whereas the latter about athletics. In the year 2013, arrived a much hyped movie called ‘Bhaag Milkha Bhaag’, with Farhan Akthar in the lead role. ‘Paan Singh Tomar’ and ‘Bhaag Milkha Bhaag’ are based on real life biographies, yet they are of totally different veins in terms of seriousness and realistic depiction; ‘Paan Singh Tomar’ substantially superseded in its message and its effective presentation than ‘Bhaag Milkha Bhaag’. Other less influencial Bollywood movies during the last few years include movies like Goal, Iqbal, Victory, Jannat, Patiala House, Kai Po Che, Stumped, Hip Hip Hurray, and Ehsaas among others. Most of these movies are centred on cricket than any other sport. But with movies like ‘Paan Singh Tomar’ and ‘Bhaag Milkha Bhaag’, the trend seems to be diverting towards sports other than cricket.

Sport of a College Competition to a Fight against Unfair Tax

The first proper sports hit of Bollywood was ‘Jo Jeeta Wahi Sikander’ which literally translated as whoever wins is the emperor (or Alexander). The story of this movie can be as inspirational today as it was then. The very release of this movie was a surprise at the first place because it wasn’t the stereotype Bollywood movie. It was a movie about sports and that too of cycling… a thorough sport and not a game. There can be some scope of luck in a game, but a sport is entirely dependent on the hard work and skills of the competitors. Such attitude of dedication and hard work are the striking features which the movie didn’t fail to show in its protagonist who finally won the cycle race against a villainous rival. The lesson was not just of triumph over college bullies, but also of real sporting spirit. In Bollywood’s sporting greats, this movie is surely a landmark for it doesn’t exalt a game like cricket, but it defines a real sport and a sportsman.

With some romance accompanied by a few songs and dance, college life depicted in this film didn’t seem inappropriate at all. A college love affair is very natural and most of the movies with such neat college romances often become classics. Other than the sport of cycling, the exhilarating songs of sober romance did push this movie into the class of Forest Gump in the Indian context. Forest Gump was a blend of love, war, sport and comedy. Likewise, ‘Jo Jeeta Wahi Sikander’ has become a fine blend of love, competition, sport and inspiration. As a hit movie, neither was there any exaggeration about the college life of students nor was there any miraculous gimmick. All events unfolded in a more or less rational manner, with a final rise in the end justifying the title… the one who wins is really the emperor.

Aamir Khan was the hero of this movie and the title of emperor associates not to his name but to his dedication portrayed in the movie in winning the cycle race. The joy of winning any race or competition is that which one would realise only after winning and pondering on the dedication that was put in. Today, this has become a lesson for the Indian desire for sporting excellence. Indubitably, this movie is the inspiration towards that lesson which would live for as long as the movie is watched.

Aamir Khan’s streak with sports did not just end with ‘Jo Jeeta Wahi Sikander’. It followed with ‘Lagaan’ in 2001. Lagaan literally means the tax which the British used to collect from farmers in India during the British Raj. More often than not, that tax used to be exorbitant, sapping the farmers of all they had until they would die of starvation, or otherwise, survive in despicable poverty. The movie Lagaan depicted such a grim situation of the 19th century. The rains had failed but the British were expectant. Rather, the British demanded their quota of tax even from those pitiable farmers who had nothing to give. Watching the British play a strange game with a bat and ball, and some other paraphernalia, the hero of the movie Bhuvan (Aamir Khan) conceives an idea of challenging the snooty British Officer Russell (Paul Blackthorne) to a game of cricket. The condition was that if the farmers won, their tax would be relinquished and the officer and his men would have to leave the village. However, if the British won, then the farmers would have to pay thrice the tax. It was a deal between some of the villagers and the British officer. But the majority of the village was unwillingly to give in to such a challenge as they knew it was a difficult proposition to win against the British in their own game. Ultimately, they realise that this was to be their only possible deliverance. And their practise begins. Sympathising with the villagers, the sister of Russell, Elizabeth (Rachel Shelley) supports their cause by providing them with the rules of the game. The dextrous villagers make their own equipment consisting of a bat, ball and pads. Even with a traitor amongst them, the villagers finally take on the British in the impending cricket match, which they win by the end quite dramatically, giving joy and relief to the entire village.

The emphasis on faith in God and forgiveness of a fellowman who acted as a traitor were necessary ideologies for overcoming an unjust regime. The unity among the villagers too was of a righteous cause. These features overwhelmed the game of cricket, contributing to a patriotic fervour than embracing the game itself. Unlike ‘Jo Jeeta Wahi Sikander’, the movie Lagaan is more about the emancipation of an exploited people than exalting the importance of a sport. Plainly, the former movie considers sports to be an end than the means, whereas the latter considered sport to be a means than an end. The former was a fictional inspiration while the latter was a historical nostalgia. Both had Aamir Khan as the protagonist hero, who delivered justice in differed ways. ‘Jo Jeeta Wahi Sikander’ is a Bollywood landmark in sports and ‘Lagaan’ has become the Bollywood landmark of history with sport being its secondary theme.
The sustenance of love and romance along with merry songs and dance to please an audience was a regular in Lagaan like in most other Bollywood movies. With them, the movie dragged long and beyond three hours. The success of the movie was partially due to the quality songs and their effective message. A romantic triangle and betrayal were just two itinerant themes to add vigour to the story. Even though Lagaan is of a patriotic tone, it wraps up with a triumph in sport collateral to patriotic glory. The unique combination of sport and history has made Lagaan a legend in Bollywood so much so that in future this movie will be looked upon for the patriotism which it garnered from both.

Reaping a Dear Old Sport

Much later, after the success of Lagaan, came the movie ‘Chak De India’ in the year 2007. Although ‘Chak De’ is a Punjabi expression meaning to ‘lift up’, it has now been adopted even in Hindi for what it means. Much credit of it goes to the success of this movie. For the first time, Bollywood focussed on the national sport through this movie, which had drooped way below recognition since the last hockey gold medal in the 1980 Olympics. Quite like Lagaan, this movie too was about emancipation of women rather than of exploited villagers. Here, the villains were not the British but the Indians themselves. The subdued Indian women’s potential was unleashed through the game of hockey. A long lost glory of the Indian national sport was unearthed through the opposite sex this time. For the patriotic cause, there were women from every part of the country. The downtrodden girls of a tribal background contributed in women’s emancipation spelling the lesson that even women can do what men can. In conciliation to this, the women’s hockey team was shown thrashing a gang of bullying boys at a restaurant. To prove women’s power, the women’s national team could even give a tight contest to the men’s national team by settling with a 3-2 score.

The idea of the whole was to promote the national game hockey back to its grandest level in the Indian context. The woman’s team was just a symptom to the national issue. Woman’s emancipation and a greater significance of hockey over cricket as a national sport were simultaneous ideologies for bringing hockey to the fore. The added feature of a Muslim coach in this cause was of another purport. India had always been secular and the depiction of a Muslim coach to concur that was just another instance of it. As a Muslim patriotic coach, Shah Rukh Khan was undoubtedly the hero of the movie albeit not a stereotypical one who would thrash villains. He was of the new kind who made India realize its potential in hockey through the fairer sex and that too without physical violence.

‘Chak De India’ is another fictional movie like Aamir Khan’s inspirational ‘Jo Jeeta Wahi Sikander’ and ‘Lagaan’. With India neither winning a world cup title nor an Olympic title in women’s hockey, this movie is only an inspirational fiction in which the underdog Indian women’s hockey team triumphs against the Australian team. The Australian national team was not the best ranked team at that period of time, but a greater popularity was to be garnered by depicting India’s rivalry against the Australian cricketing dominance of the last few years. This was particularly ironical because the movie tried to portray hockey’s superiority over cricket, yet it chose to harbour on cricketing rivalry. More so, the Indian women’s team’s best achievement was only the fourth place in both world championships and Olympics, which was much inferior to the men’s achievement of one world championship win and eight Olympic golds apart from several second and third places.

The movie made a slight improvement from the previous Hindi sport movies in terms of using songs only for inspiration than for entertainment or dance. There is practically no dance in this movie unlike in other sport movies including ‘Jo Jeeta Wahi Sikander’ and ‘Lagaan’. The inclusion of background music and songs is understandably essential for establishing zeal and zest into the audience, but if it is supplemented with dance then it becomes an exaggeration. Almost always an exaggeration on a serious topic like sports relinquishes the realism of the story, which subsequently debilitates the intensity of the motive. With the positive of lesser song and dance, ‘Chak De India’ scored slightly better than the previous Bollywood sport movies. However, the gimmick of a Muslim coach for an Indian women’s team in a sport which they had never dominated was something excessively fictional and immaterial. Even the lack of portrayal of ample skills used in field play debilitated some realism. But among the very few sport movies in Hindi, ‘Chak De India’ has surely scored a hit.

Making of the Tragedies of Indian Athletes

No one would have ever believed in the twentieth century that an Indian athlete could win an Olympic medal even of the paler hue; and this eventually came to pass. We can only brood on the manifold stories of Indian athletes for their tame tragic ends than for their majesty. If we are left with anything to ponder upon, then it is only the pathetic condition of the Indian athletes who were never given any support by the Indian government even if they deserved it. Paan Singh Tomar and Milkha Singh were two athletes who were unknown until lately, and even then, who would have cared about them when their own country regarded them little.

With the releases of the movies ‘Paan Singh Tomar’ in 2010 and ‘Bhaag Milkha Bhaag’ in 2013, the grim situation of Indian athletics gets candidly depicted. The biographies of Paan Singh Tomar and Milkha Singh are heartrending as well as inspirational. However, the movie ‘Bhaag Milkha Bhaag’ has been shown in the brighter perspective albeit in the typical Bollywood style of a spice movie. Yet, the issue central to these two movies was of the despicable condition of Indian sports and sportsmen in the twentieth century. On one hand, ‘Paan Singh Tomar’ highlighted the corrupt bureaucratic condition in India, whereas on the other hand, ‘Bhaag Milkha Bhaag’ depicted the historical tragedy of the partition of India in the prospect of the athlete Milkha Singh. The two films were of a slightly different tone when it came to the positivity and depiction of a real life biography. Paan Singh Tomar was an athlete turned bandit and his portrayal in the movie was that of a tragic hero whose end was a reminder of the indifference towards Indian sportsmen. It also carried an epilogue where the lost legacy of the unsung sportsmen of India was narrated. A four time Olympic gold medallist Shankar Laxman had departed due to lack of medical attention, a bronze medallist of the 1952 Olympics K.D. Jadhav had passed away penniless, a 1954 Asian Games gold medallist Sarwan Singh was forced to sell his gold medal, and a 1954 Asian Games shotput and discus throw gold medallist Parduman Singh had also died penniless.

There was Indian history depicted in many Bollywood movies, but they were never on the theme of sports biography. ‘Paan Singh Tomar’ was one historical tragedy which has not just become original but it also survives as a legend. As a film, the seriousness of its subject is something which is seldom seen. Even ‘Bhaag Milkha Bhaag’ failed to depict a tragedy as a tragedy. Instead, the greatest athlete of India Milkha Singh, who came fourth in the 400 metre race in the 1960 Rome Olympics, was shown to have won a race against Pakistan to relish all its glory. The race against Pakistan was trivial compared to the race in the Olympics, where he was the favourite before the race started. Eventually, he broke the Olympic record by timing 45.6 seconds. But sadly, even the other three who raced ahead of him had also broken the record and even bettered. This loss had agonised Milkha Singh for a long time.

‘Paan Singh Tomar’ is perhaps the first most popular Biography of an Indian sportsman. The second would be ‘Bhaag Milkha Bhaag’. But even though the latter is a biographical movie, the presentation of it is more on the fictional side. Drinking two cans of clarified butter and doing push ups, getting a hysteria when flying on a plane, having a love affair with a foreigner, and getting his feet brutally injured by a rival before winning a race and setting a national record are all blatant gimmicks. To think they are real is outstanding imagination. As a biography, ‘Paan Singh Tomar’ appreciably didn’t even have any song and dance like a regular Bollywood movie, quite unlike ‘Bhaag Milkha Bhaag’ which was spiced thoroughly with song and dance to improve the entertainment quotient. Even with that, the irony was in the climax which had the win of India’s best athlete of the century against the much inferior Pakistani athletes. Ultimately, with the exaggerated gimmicks, ‘Bhaag Milkha Bhaag’ has thoroughly become a failed biography. The serious identity of Milkha Singh as a sportsman has been misplaced as a romantic who is shown to have two love affairs. To concur on that, the excess baggage of song and dance is supplemented.

Apart from being a poor portrayal of a historical biography, ‘Bhaag Milkha Bhaag’ was a confused blend of the bitter pill of the Hindu-Muslim riot that conceded the partition of India, and the concept of having a better relationship with Pakistan. Even though Milkha’s father was killed by Muslims during the partition, it has not been explicitly shown to appease a certain part of the audience. Milkha Singh is by far the greatest male athlete that India has produced, who won multiple Asian Games gold medals and he is the only male athlete to have reached the highest position in an Olympic race. Also, as of 2013, he is the only male athlete from India to have won a commonwealth gold in athletics. With such outstanding achievements, the climax of his biography depicted his win against Pakistan, which was an utterly belittling idea. A much greater emotion in Milkha Singh’s life was his loss at the 1960 Olympic Games. The nostalgia and the agony of this loss at the Games would have certainly made a much superior climax. The waiver of this tragic concept and the partition oblivion implied the use of patriotic and secular sentiments to please a larger audience. The movie ended up as a spicy commercial movie instead of a classic tragedy. The dire anguish of Indian sports in its entire past concurs that an Indian sportsman’s tragedy would be more appropriate in a biographical portrayal. To further add insult to injury, even the corrupt Indian bureaucracy and political system was not criticised contrary of the earlier successful tragedy ‘Paan Singh Tomar’. Ironically, the politicians of that time were shown to have aided in the growth of the greatest athlete of India.

Perhaps, the Bollywood stereotypes have feigned the latest flick ‘Bhaag Milkha Bhaag’ from making a touching story of a great athlete. Yet the previous tale of Paan Singh Tomar is a tragedy which is worth reckoning. Of sportsmen or others, biographies are always mature creations, which Hindi cinema would have learnt better from ‘Paan Singh Tomar’ than from ‘Bhaag Milkha Bhaag’. Hopefully, such mature biographies of sportsmen would give India a better future in sports.


Aamir Khan, Athletics, Biographies, Bollywood, Cricket, Farhaan Akthar, Hindi Movies, Hockey, Irfaan Khan, Milkha Singh, Paan Singh Tomar, Sport Entertainment, Tax, Tragedy, Womens Emancipation

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author avatar Susanto Sen
As a bibliophile, I love to collect non-fiction books, My non-fiction interests are mainly philosophy, spirituality, and some bit of statistics. Other interests are movies and television media.

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author avatar Ptrikha
9th Oct 2013 (#)

A great comparison of different movies based on sports.

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author avatar Susanto Sen
9th Oct 2013 (#)

Thank you, Ptrikha.

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author avatar Nancy
25th May 2016 (#)

it is indeed a great piece of work about hindi sports movie. ,,very helpful... thank u...

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