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Barefoot in Bengal: Indian football’s immortal XI who beat the British

Sports champions from pre-Independence India will soon have Bollywood biopics made on them. One of the films will be on the iconic match where Calcutta’s Mohun Bagan beat the All-British East Yorkshire Regiment in 1911.

brunch Updated: Apr 26, 2014 17:03 IST
Aasheesh Sharma

Sports champions from pre-Independence India, icons of our struggle against colonialism, will soon have Bollywood biopics made on them. We trace their incredible life stories.

Beating the British at their own game
If Shah Rukh Khan were to give a pep talk to 11 bare-footed 'native' amateurs taking on a team of booted firangi professionals, he might have said: "Pachas minute! The next 50 minutes will turn you into Indian football's first action heroes." In hindsight, few of the more than 80,000 fans thronging the Calcutta Cricket and Football Club maidan to watch the IFA Shield final on the humid afternoon of July 29, 1911 had any inkling about how the triumph would go on to inspire generations of Indians.

For the record, Mohun Bagan beat the All-British East Yorkshire Regiment, an ancient infantry unit based in Ghaziabad in the match, with the scoreline reading 2-1. The British team scored first through Sergeant Jackson. For Bagan, winger Sibdas Bhaduri, who scored the equaliser and centre forward Abhilash Ghosh who delivered the match-winner, went on to win cult fame and sparked Bengal's love affair with football.

Now the magic of the victory is being recreated in a movie being directed by Shoojit Sircar where John Abraham plays Bhaduri, the winning captain.

Whether it is for positional nous, sublime ball skills, teamwork or the good old adrenaline kick that one gets while playing The Beautiful Game, football fascinates Bengalis like nothing else does. Of course, most aficionados have heard the oft-quoted saying by Swami Vivekananda: "You'll be nearer to heaven playing football than studying the Bhagavad-Gita." But when a Bengali insists that the 1911 IFA victory triggered an avalanche of nationalist ferment that made the British shift the capital from Calcutta to Delhi within months of the loss, you better not argue with him.

Bollywood might be waking up to the significance of the victory only now, but the triumph has been celebrated almost every afternoon for more than hundred years on the football fields of the City of Joy. In 2011, to commemorate a century of the win, Tollywood, as the Bengali film industry is called, came out with the film Egaro: The Immortal XI. Arun Roy, Egaro's director and writer, says the 1911 match is as integral to Calcutta's heritage as the Victoria Memorial or the Howrah Bridge. Only it pre-dates both these Calcutta icons. "In school, we read about the exploits of the immortal eleven and fell in love with Mohun Bagan. The 1911 triumph earlier was a part of our curriculum and now it has again been included. But it was after I watched Aamir Khan in Lagaan that I first thought about the victory in an anti-imperialist light and thought about adapting the story on celluloid," says Roy.

The Beginnings
In the days of the Raj, football in Bengal was played only by British civilian and military personnel. But by the end of the 19th century, clubs such as Shovabazar, National, Kumartuli, Chandannagar Sporting, Mohun Bagan, Aryans and Chinsura Sporting began to be formed. "To begin with, 'natives' were not allowed to play in most official tournaments," says Kolkata-based football historian Subranshu Roy. "Since its inception in 1898, only one local team was allowed in the IFA Shield. Bagan's chance came in 1909 and after early exits in the first two years, they made history in 1911. It helped popularise the sport and soon football became an integral part of the Bengali way of life," says Roy, who is pursuing a PhD on football at Jadavpur University.

Day of reckoning
For the kick-off at 5.30pm, fans were yearning to see Bagan beat the colonial masters. Thousands flocked to the Maidan parade ground adjoining Fort William from every part of Calcutta and the Bengal Presidency along with neighbouring Assam and Bihar. "To cope with the rush, the East Indian Railway ran a special train from Burdwan to Howrah and back and a steamer service that brought people from Rajgunj and Baranagar," says Subranshu Roy.

News reports put the size of the crowd between 80,000 and 100,000 people. Since many of those present in the maidan were away from the sporting action, innovative devices were used as scoreboards. People in the front rows communicated the score by flying kites and sending messages tied to the toes of pigeons. That evening, the sky above Calcutta turned green and maroon (the hues of the Bagan jersey) as hundreds of kites flew high, declaring that the colonialists had been beaten at their own game.

The symbolism

To understand why the 1911 victory is such a big deal, one must see it in a historical context. It came three years after the execution of Khudiram Bose for an attempt to murder Douglas Kingsford, the magistrate of Muzaffarpur and six years after Lord Curzon's machinations led to Bengal's partition in 1905.


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Shoojit Sircar, director, 1911, on the magic of Mohun Bagan

Filmmaker Shoojit Sircar, who has worked with actor-producer John Abraham on Vicky Donor and Madras Café is now hoping for a hat-trick with a film on football. Written by Soumik Sen, who has also directed the gritty Gulaab Gang, the story centres on the legendary barefoot members of the Mohun Bagan football team. "The National Library in Kolkata is a great resource for research on the subject," says Sen.

Sircar says the film will be set against the backdrop of the nationalist movement that had gripped Bengal at that time. "Football was more than a game at that point in history. I’ll devote a considerable portion of the film to the sentiments of patriotism that the victory evoked."

—Veenu Singh

In his critically acclaimed book Stories from Indian Football, sports journalist Jaydeep Basu says Bagan's victory created an unprecedented stir in the people's psyche. "For the Bengalees, it was like taking revenge for all the injustice they had been subjected to since Robert Clive wrested their country in the Battle of Plassey in a treacherous manner."

Seasoned football writer Novy Kapadia, author of Kick-Off! The Football Fanatic's Essential 2014 Guide, says the 1911 win was the first ever victory for an Indian sports team in any game against an international opponent. "The hockey victories came much later. It challenged the notion of the colonialist as being racially superior to its subjects. No wonder it worked like a binding factor, cutting across religious affiliations. The Muslim Sporting Club, for instance, celebrated Bagan's victory with fervour. That night, they went to the Mohun Bagan tent and congratulated them. On the morning of July 30th Calcutta's Urdu papers also played up the victory. The Mussalman famously wrote, 'Members of the Muslim Sporting Club were almost mad and rolling on the ground with joyous excitement on the victory of their Hindu brethren.' Unfortunately it never gets the kind of importance it should get in India's social history," rues Kapadia.

In a paper on sports as the catalyst of nationalism in colonial India, in the journal Quarterly Review of Historical Studies Professor Sumit Mukerji from West Bengal's University of Kalyani writes that the myth that the Bengalis were lacking in martial quality stood exploded with the triumph."This was unpalatable to many English-owned newspapers. The Statesman, for instance, wrote patronizingly that 'No idea could be more absurd than to suppose that English people could possibly grudge the victory… Nothing pleases him more than that in some parts of the world discover pupils who beat their masters."

The protagonists

Of the eleven amateurs on the field that fateful evening, a few went on to become part of football folklore. One of these, defender Sudhir Chatterji, a Bengali Christian, taught at the Bhowanipur College. In the movie Egaro, Chatterji loses his job thanks to the gora principal who cannot stand him playing in a team against the British. "He was a well-regarded figure: The only player of the eleven to actually play with his boots and jersey. He was also the attention of the affections of an English girl," says Kapadia.

The other popular figure, centre forward Abhilash Ghosh, who features in one of the romantic tracks in Egaro, was tall and well-built in real life, unlike the rest of his teammates. "He is in love with a girl next door, but her parents consider him a wastrel, since he didn't do anything but played football. The fairy tale didn't have a typical Hollywood ending," says Kapadia.

But in the 50-minute final at the Maidan, the proceedings were the stuff of legend. Ten of the 11 Bengali players (save Sudhir Chatterji) played barefoot, while the British played with spurs. Playing barefoot on the maidan at the height of the Calcutta monsoon was hard. Shot-taking and passing were difficult and chances of injuries high. But relying on the signature Bengali game, high on skill and short passes, Bagan scripted an epochal victory that even the British newspaper Englishman had to praise in the words: "Mohan-Bagan has succeeded in what the Congress and the Swadeshiwallas have failed to do so far to explode the myth that the Britishers are unbeatable in any sphere of life."

At the time it happened, the victory, says sports historian Boria Majumdar, symbolised the epitome of the brand of nationalism being practised in Bengal. "Given the revolutionary terrorism spreading in the state from 1905 leading up to the capital being shifted from Calcutta to Delhi in 2011, the win was the best way to spread the message of moderate nationalism, on the football field," says Majumdar.

After the victory, the players were taken on a public procession atop a horse-driven carriage. Diyas were lit and conch shells blown to welcome the eleven. The entire city of Calcutta was bathed in lights except for Chowringee Square, the sahib para (British neighbourhood)! A dance drama Bhisma Vijay was enacted in honour of the victorious team! Indian sport would never be the same again.

Match Trivia
" A ticket worth Rs 2 soared to Rs 15 and black marketeers made a killing. According to Reuters the estimated number of people was 80,000 even as other newspapers estimated that the figure swelled to a lakh. The East Indian Railway ran a special train from Burdwan to Howrah and back and a steamer service that brought people from Rajgunj and Baranagar.

" Such was the throng of people watching the match that there was little space even on the treetops, telegraph posts and the roofs of houses. The Empire magazine even setup a temporary telephone exchange on the spot.

" It was a precursor for IPL-style corporate hospitality with the company BH Smith setting up special seats booked exclusively for British patrons.

Pic credit: Mohun Bagan Football club

Also read
Dhyan Chand: Hockey’s original He-Man

Gama the Great: the pahalwan from Punjab who wowed the world

From HT Brunch, April 27
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