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

Sports champions from pre-Independence India will soon have Bollywood biopics made on them. Even as actor-filmmaker Parmeet Sethi makes a biopic on Gama featuring John Abraham, we re-discover wrestling’s forgotten hero.

brunch Updated: Apr 26, 2014 17:04 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.

On the trail of Gama the Great
In times when spin doctors routinely anoint ordinary sportsmen as 'great', one exceptionally brilliant Indian wrestler can truly lay claim to the mantle. Over his long career he earned other sobriquets: Rustam-e-Zamana, the Lion of Punjab, a champion who died undefeated: the legend of Gama was built in the mud-pit akharas of the country.

Actor-filmmaker Parmeet Sethi, who is directing a biopic on him featuring John Abraham, says Gama is wrestling's forgotten hero.

Joseph S Alter, professor of anthropology at the University of Pittsburgh and the author of The Wrestler's Body: Identity and Ideology in North India, says Gama embodied strength and self-determination in the years when India was struggling for independence.

For more than a century, before Sushil Kumar proved India's mettle to the world at the London Olympics in 2010, Gama's exploits were drilled into the minds of young wrestlers, says Satpal Singh, coach of two-time Olympic medallist Sushil and Yogeshwar Dutt.

Photo courtesy: The Hindu

Daanv Pech dude

In his classic book Strong Men Over The Years, which traces the history of Indian wrestling, author S Muzumdar observes that the art of Indian wrestling has many legends but no history. Gama's biographical details are no different.Gama's journey, part fact-part legend, begins in the bylanes of Amritsar in 1882. His father Mohammad Aziz, a renowned wrestler himself, dreamt of training his son Ghulam Mohammed aka Gama. Unfortunately, Aziz passed away when Gama was just five. The responsibility of teaching the intricacies of daanv pench fell on his uncle Ida Pahalwan. Displaying promise at a very young age, Gama found the patronage of Bhawani Singh, ruler of the princely state of Datia in Madhya Pradesh.

Gama's regimen of diet, exercise and practice, which included thousands of dand (jack-knife pushups) and baithaks (deep knee bends) was the envy of grapplers worldwide. In his heyday, or so goes the legend, Gama's everyday meals included six chickens, 10 litres of milk, half a litre of ghee and lavish quantities of almonds crushed into a strength tonic.


Why Bollywood is seeking inspiration from the real stories of yesteryear sporting icons Wizard

Aarti Shetty, Walkwater Media’s creative director, on their movie on Dhyan Chand

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.

The producers chose Dhyan Chand because they were impressed by his larger-than-life persona. "He had an amazing life and we have a team of people researching every aspect. Writer Ila Bedi Dutta (of Agneepath fame) is writing the story while ad filmmaker Rohit Vaid, who has been closely following the life of Major Dhyan Chand, will direct it. We agreed to go ahead with the project after getting clearances from his family." Returns

Parmeet Sethi on directing John Abraham as Gama

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. for Goal

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

Golden hour

According to Ratan Patodi, editor of the Bharatiya Kushti Patrika, Gama's hour of glory came when he beat Stanislaus Zbyszko, one of the finest Greco-Roman style wrestlers of all time. In 1910, having beaten many other Indian wrestlers in Gwalior, Bhopal, Datia, Amritsar, Lahore and Baroda, Gama set sail for England for an international competition.

"Once he reached London, weighing just 88 kilos, Gama realised he couldn't qualify for a championship that allowed only heavyweights. So, his manager decided to throw an outrageous challenge," says Patodi. "Gama offered £5 to any wrestler who could spend just five minutes with him in the ring," recounts Patodi.

The stage was set for the match of the century between then European champion Zbyszko and his Indian challenger. Gama's power and lightning moves caught Zbyszko by surprise. The latter stayed in a defensive posture for three hours and the match had to be postponed, to be resumed the following day. But Zbyszko failed to turn up and Gama was presented the title of Rustam-e-Zamana.

When he returned home, Gama was hailed as a hero. But he was far from happy. The most satisfying feeling for a wrestler is when he has his rival's back touching the ground. In wrestling parlance, it is known as aasman dikhana. Gama hadn't been able to show Zbyszko the sky.

He achieved that in 1928, when the Maharaja of Patiala organised a rematch between Gama and his Polish adversary. Thirsting for revenge, Zbyszko had been training hard for years. Still, he lasted less than a minute. Gama floored him in 49 seconds flat. The victory was hailed as a symbol of resurgent Indian nationalism.

After Partition, Gama settled in Pakistan. In 1960, he died owing to high blood pressure and asthma. But his legend lives on in the subcontinent's akharas. Joseph Alter calls Gama the original son of the soil. "Since his success is linked closely to his ability to wrestle in the earth, consume litre upon litre of ghee, kilo upon kilo of badam and yakhni, and do thousands of dand-bethak every day, Gama's legacy will be one of masculine nostalgia."

Even Bruce Lee was inspired by him..
" Reports say martial arts legend Bruce Lee read articles about Gama's exercise regime and incorporated some of them, such as the Cat Stretch (an Indian version of the push-up) into his own routine.

" Gama has inspired the concept and look for the character Darun Mister, in the video game series Street Fighter EX. The character, with his trademark moustache, bears an uncanny resemblance to Gama.

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

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

From HT Brunch, April 27
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