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.
The making of the Dhyan Chand legend
A Suraiya fan who loved going on shikaar and relished his kulhad of rabri. A hockey magician who conjured up scoring opportunities at will and a patriot who turned down an offer the Fuhrer thought he couldn't refuse. Major Dhyan Chand was all these and then some. Now the exciting life and times of the champion is the subject of a biopic being produced by Walkwater Media's Pooja Shetty, and directed by ad filmmaker Rohit Vaid, who makes his Bollywood debut.
Hockey historian K Arumugam, who runs the NGO One Thousand Hockey Legs, says Dhyan Chand is a synonym for sporting excellence. "If a single athlete gave the country credibility as a sporting nation, it was none other than this soldier in the British Indian army," says Arumugam. "He is world hockey's first He-Man. Just like Bradman is cricket's first global superstar. Scoring a hat-trick of goals against Germany in the Olympics organised by Adolf Hitler has no parallel," adds Arumugam.
Remember the Titans? - The making of the Dhyanchand legend
For a moment, leave the encomiums aside. Simply mull over some hard facts about the hockey wizard. Dhyan Chand won an Olympic gold medal for India in three successive Olympics at Amsterdam (1928), Los Angeles (1932) and Berlin (1936). Over an illustrious 22-year career (1926 to 1948), he scored more than 400 international goals.
Beyond statistics, Dhyan Chand's impact on our hockey fortunes can be gauged by the astonishing statistic that India never, ever lost any international match that he played in.
Ask his son, two-time Olympian Ashok Dhyan Chand, about his father and he grows nostalgic about a time when athletes played for the passion of the game, far removed from today's six-figure salaries and international leagues. "He was given an honorary major's rank in the early 1950s. In 1956, we shifted to our ancestral home in Jhansi. Babuji stayed with us only for about a month before going away to resume work in Delhi. Despite his retirement from international hockey, he had to work for a living since we were not financially strong. His income was used up in raising our large joint family," begins Ashok, who played in the centre-forward position like his illustrious father and scored the winning goal against Pakistan in the World Cup final of 1975.
A son remembers
As a child, Ashok remembers that Dhyan Chand didn't gloat in his reputation as hockey's first superstar. "As a person, Babuji was really grounded. That is why he never bothered to pen down a series of books about his exploits. But when he came home on chhuti, he liked to recall his special memories from the hockey field with his family members."
And the most special of these memories came at Berlin, in what came to be known as the 'Nazi Olympics'.
At the Berlin Olympics, 1936, Adolf Hitler wanted to reinforce the myth about 'Aryan' racial superiority and physical prowess. When British India sent its team to defend the titles it had won in the last two editions of the Olympic, they had to surmount a number of odds. To begin with, for the travel to Germany by ship, the team had to raise money on its own. "The team needed more than Rs 50,000, Babuji told us. Considering the enormity of the amount [in those days], a nationwide campaign was launched and leading industrialists and the royalty were approached to pitch in with money that would sponsor the team's voyage to Berlin. Even as business houses such as the Tatas and Birlas came forward with donations, when Gandhiji was first approached for the same, the Mahatma asked: 'Yeh hockey cheez kya hoti hai?' Those were early days of the game in India. Finally, funds to the tune of Rs 52,000 were raised. We have the balance sheet at home even today."
Triumph at Berlin
After a gruelling 90-day journey, within hours of alighting from the ship, India could not win a practice game to Germany. Soon Berlin was abuzz with rumours about how the Olympic Champions had lost their mojo. Which is why, says Kumar, Hitler made sure he was present in the stands to boost the morale of his team and thought they would repeat their upset victory.
But Dhyan Chand's boys had other plans. "After losing the practice match, the senior players of the team including my father and Swami Jagannath Rao held a meeting, where they realised that our right wing attack was being blunted because of the absence of a decent inside-right. So, they requested the hockey federation to seek the services of Colonel AIS Dara for the final. He was the only player to be flown in to Germany, on the eve of the all-important game," recalls Ashok.
With the Fuhrer in attendance, the Germans were really charged up. At half time, India was hanging on to a slender one-goal lead which could have reversed in a matter of seconds. "The Germans played a really physical match and my father, who was marked tightly, lost one tooth in a rough tackle. Then my uncle Roop Singh and he decided to remove their shoes and play bare-foot. In those days, no substitutions were allowed and if a player was injured the team had to play on regardless," points out Ashok.
After half-time, the team played as if their lives depended upon the outcome of the match. India hammered in seven goals with Dhyan Chand scoring a hat-trick. A stunned Hitler, mesmerised by Dhyan Chand's stick sorcery, sat in silence, as if a cat had got his tongue.
What triggered the team's transformation in the changeover? "After the first half, Babuji and the team decided they would teach the Germans the art of ball possession. They dominated the game in the traditional Indian style of short passes that left the Germans nonplussed. After the match, recalled Babuji, even as the Indian team was celebrating, the close to 50,000-strong crowd of German fans, including their chancellor, left the stadium in silence, with military-like precision. The Indians had stunned the 'Aryans' into silence," says Ashok.
Subsequently, Hitler offered a colonel's rank to Dhyan Chand provided he took German citizenship, says Ashok. "But my father declined saying that he was first and foremost an Indian and then a soldier or a player. Unfortunately, since the nation wasn't still independent and the tricolour was still to become official, the team had to hoist a flag with the charkha in the middle strip," added Ashok.
In the years that he was growing up in Jhansi, Dhyan Chand had already been proclaimed India's most successful hockey player and the darling of the West. In Vienna, a statue of his father with four hands was installed to signify that it was impossible for a hockey player to control the ball so well with just two hands. As a child, recalls Ashok, hundreds of strangers kept pouring into their home to meet his Babuji. "My mother liked to read out newspaper articles about Babuji to us. Outside our house in Meerut, my brothers and I got our first lessons in hockey, playing with sticks made especially for kids by Pandit Sohan Lal."
After hours, Dhyan Chand was fond of watching Hindi films, says Ashok. "He liked movie stars Ashok Kumar and Madhubala. But he had a special place in his heart for singing star Suraiya whose life-size portrait was hung in our Meerut home for years. Also, Babuji was a passionate hunter. And as was the norm in the army those days, he liked to go game hunting on the weekend in forests outside Meerut," recalls Ashok.
Although the Dhyan Chand siblings were vying for their father's attention, who wasn't exactly an extrovert, the hockey magician had his own ways of displaying affection, says Ashok. "When he came home for his annual leave in Jhansi, he would go out in the evening with his friends and on the way back, get us rabri in a large mitti ka bartan. Since many of us had fallen asleep by then, he used to wake each of us up and feed us rabri with a spoon with his own hands," recalls a misty-eyed Ashok.
Thirty five years after Dhyan Chand's death, says Ashok, his fame hasn't diminished. Every corner of the globe he toured, Dhyan Chand left an impression and won fans over. Ashok cites an example from a tour to New Zealand in 1975, when he was part of the Indian team. "We were having snacks in a restaurant in Auckland. The owner approached us and asked us whether the side was from India. On confirmation she remarked, "Oh I know Dhyan Chand!"
Now, my father had visited New Zealand last in 1935 on his second trip to the country. Forty years later, the lady, who would have been a child then, still remembered the magical goals he scored. She had watched all the matches on that tour. When my coach told her that I was her son, she gave me a big hug."Apart from admiration, the quality of his game also drew astonishment and awe. For instance, on a trip to Holland the authorities broke his hockey stick to check whether there was a magnet inside. "On another occasion a lady gave him her walking stick and urged him to play with that. He managed to score a goal with that too!" says Arumugam.
|SEASON OF BIOPICS|
Why Bollywood is seeking inspiration from the real stories of yesteryear sporting icons
Indian hockey’s greatest legend will soon be seen on celluloid, says Aarti Shetty. "Films based on real life heroes, which have inspirational content, generate a lot of interest among the audience," says Shetty.
Four years after Badmaash Company, actor-filmmaker Parmeet Sethi is donning the director’s cap for a biopic on the life of Gama Pahalwan. "I was looking to make something that would be a step higher than my last, a commercial film. I thought of looking at real life stories of forgotten heroes and began reading about them. While doing my research, I came across the story of Gama, who was such a fabulous wrestler, but today, unfortunately, no one knows much about the achievements of this great man." After researching the man and working on the script, Sethi narrated the idea to producer John Abraham, who immediately agreed not just to produce the film but also to play the title role. Calling the project a pleasure and a challenge, Sethi wants to make the film look as authentic as possible.
Going for Goal
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.
The original jewel
Former Indian forward Mohammad Shahid, who was part of the triumphant Indian team at the Moscow Olympics in 1980, says Dhyan Chand has a special place in India's Olympic history. Shahid, whose dribbling skills sometimes drew comparison with Dhyan Chand's superlative ball control, spent some time with the hockey legend in his last days in the late 1970s. "I recall Dadda, as everyone called him then, had been ailing for some time. I was a resident at Lucknow's sports hostel, and went to meet him and take care of him along with his son Devender Singh, who was my room partner. It is a pity the nation didn't bestow the highest civilian award on him in his lifetime."
Former Indian hockey captain and present day Rajya Sabha MP Dilip Tirkey agrees with Shahid. "When I was young, growing up in rural Orissa, we all read about Dhyan Chand's legend as hockey's magician. He had a special affection for Orissa and even coached in the state. If Sachin Tendulkar was the biggest sporting hero of the 21st century, Dhyan Chand was his predecessor in the 20th century. If the Bharat Ratna had considered sporting icons two decades back, he would have got the honour posthumously, even before Sachin. It is high time we corrected that," says Tirkey.
Ashok says his father's indomitable spirit and simplicity are his most valuable legacy. "He was a superstar who rode a bicycle to work even after winning Olympic gold medals. Even if the opposition targeted him (Babuji's nose was broken many times), he never cribbed about it. He used to say: 'Khiladi woh hai jo maar nahin khaye'.
When others were sleeping in the barracks or playing cards, he used to practise alone. In my time, I followed these life lessons and they always helped me bounce back from tough times," says Ashok.
" After seeing him play in his heyday, Bradman reportedly remarked: "He scores goals like runs in cricket!"
" His birthday, August 29, is celebrated as National Sports Day.
" In the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Adolf Hitler wanted to buy his stick after watching the final match against Germany.
" Once, or so goes the legend, unable to score a goal against the opposition he argued with the referee regarding the measurement of the goal post. On checking, it was indeed found to narrower than what was prescribed under international rules.
" In Holland, the authorities broke his hockey stick to check if there was a magnet inside.
" A tube station has been named after him in London, along with 358 other past and present Olympic heroes.
Gama the great: the pahalwan from Punjab who wowed the world
Barefoot in Bengal: Indian football’s immortal XI who beat the British
From HT Brunch, April 27
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