This story first appeared on 19 September 2014.
Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, the 1993 biopic based on the life of the martial arts legend, inspired a teenaged Mangte Chungneijang Mary Kom, the daughter of landless agricultural labourers, to pick up combat sport. At that time, her dream was limited to learning the nuances of boxing. But not even in her remotest dreams did she imagine that one day her own life would become the subject of a celebrated Bollywood film as well.
The mother of three sons – seven-year-old twins Khupneivar (nicknamed Nainai) and Rechungvar, and one-year-old Prince – now has her sights set on a medal in the 51kg weight category at the Asian Games (which she has won now). Speaking to HT Brunch on the sidelines of a training session at Delhi’s Indira Gandhi Stadium, India’s best-known woman boxer says she is happy with the way the movie, Mary Kom, has turned out. "It is superbly made and I am happy that because of the film, women’s boxing will finally get its due. People will come to know about the hardships women boxers face in order to win medals for the country," she says.
Instead of savouring the success of the biopic and accepting invitations to numerous movie premieres, Mary Kom has kept herself away from the razzmatazz and trained hard in isolation.
"I am still an active sportsperson and my hunger to achieve more is still strong. So, I preferred to make the most of the time I had preparing for the Asian Games," says the pugilist who has managed to spend just four days with her children in the last two months in the run-up to the Games.
Also read:Mary Kom will settle for nothing less than gold at Asiad
“Even when I am not at my peak, I am confident of winning. I got the better of my opponent during the trials for the Commonwealth Games. It took 15 minutes for the judges to decide on the winner and the verdict went against me. I was sure I had won that time too, but I decided to stay quiet and reply in my own way at the Asian Games’ trials. So, I trained hard and left no room for discussion. This time around, I won with a margin to spare,” says the feisty boxer triumphantly.
Even before Priyanka Chopra was cast for the lead role in a biographical movie about MC Mary Kom, the Olympic medallist boxer was an established name in India’s sporting circles.
Mary Kom’s rise from a remote village in Manipur to a hat-trick of world titles (in 2002, 2005 and 2006) makes for an incredible tale. She continued to box after her marriage to K Onler Kom, whom she met when he was studying to be a lawyer in Delhi, and won an Olympic medal after motherhood.
Her amazing journey motivated filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali to produce a movie about her. It’s perhaps for the first time in the world that a biopic on a major sportsperson’s life has been made while the athlete is still active in the sporting arena. The biopic has further cemented Mary Kom’s celebrity status and made the boxer from Manipur a household name across the country.
At the ongoing Asian Games being held at Incheon, Korea, Mary Kom returns to international competition after her Olympics triumph in August 2012 and after giving birth to her third child in June last year.
The biopic depicts the struggle behind achieving world glory and Mary Kom’s comeback after giving birth to twins. It ends with the national anthem being played in China after she won gold for the fourth time at the World Championships in 2008.
The movie opened to mixed reviews and some critics noted the conspicuous absence of the London Olympics triumph from the narrative. Though Bhansali’s Mary Kom has released in 2014, the film stops at 2008.
But only a minuscule fraction of the audience comes from a sporting background; for most viewers, the real-life rise of a village girl from obscurity to international fame, that too after motherhood, is enough to keep them riveted.
"As per the contract for the biopic, we had given permission to depict her life only till the world championships held in China in 2008. That’s why the London Olympics were not included," says her husband.
So, will there be a sequel to the movie, portraying Mary Kom’s story after 2008? Surely, her second comeback after motherhood and her Olympic victory make for another adaptation. "When the contract for Mary Kom the movie was signed, at that time, she hadn’t even qualified for the London segment. So, including the London Games in the story was out of the question. But if anybody is willing to make a second part, we are game for it," says Onler.
Tragically, in 2006, his father was assassinated by insurgents and Onler briefly thought about picking up the gun to seek retribution. But his father had been one of a pair of twins and when Mary Kom, too, gave birth to twins, Onler saw it as his father’s rebirth and gradually the feelings of revenge faded away.
The popular vote
There used to be a time when India’s women boxers, including those who had won international medals, were not given their due. Even an air ticket to fly home from Delhi after winning a gold medal in the World Championships was considered a big incentive for the girls.
“The first national camp for women boxers was held at Bangalore in 2001 and the girls travelled by train on sleeper class tickets,” recalls Anup Kumar, the national women’s chief coach in boxing. “I still remember that before going for the World Championships in 2002 and 2005, I announced that I would sponsor the air tickets from New Delhi to the hometown of the girl who won gold. Mary won the gold on both the occasions and got to fly from Delhi to Imphal.”
The year 2000, when Mary Kom first stepped into the ring, coincided with a blanket ban on the release of Hindi movies in local theatres, imposed by insurgent groups active in Manipur. Neither has the biopic made on the life of the Manipuri star been shot in her home state, nor has it been screened in theatres there.
"Mary Kom is Manipur’s pride. How come people here have to skip a movie based on their star’s life? Everyone here is watching it on pirated CDs," says L Ibomcha Singh, Mary Kom’s first coach.
Since the insurgency made it impossible to shoot on location at Mary Kom’s native village in Kangathei, Manipur, the scenes showing Mary Kom in her village were shot in Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh. The sequences showing her life after marriage to Onler Kom in his village were shot at a hamlet on the outskirts of Manali. The rest of the biopic has been shot at Mumbai’s Film City, says Ravi Saharan, one of the assistant directors, who also happens to be the son of national women’s chief coach Anup Kumar.
Also read: I had to build those muscles in three months, what Mary Kom did in 15 years- Priyanka Chopra
Thanks to his father’s access to the boxing establishment and archives, Saharan could help director Omung Kumar get valuable material and sporting footage for the film. “I collected old recordings of Mary Kom’s bouts and old photographs from my father.
The way Priyanka Chopra gets emotional when the national anthem was played during the World Championships, in the last scene of the movie, is exactly how it was in real life, when Mary became world champion and stood at the top of the podium.
“We got the recording of that moment from my dad. He even helped us with anecdotes about Mary, such as how she keeps the Bible under her pillow when she goes to sleep. Kumar used some of them in the movie,” Saharan reveals.
Training to be mary
To get under the skin of her character, Priyanka Chopra trained for almost six months with professional coaches and national level pugilists who knew Mary Kom well. In the beginning, for two months, Priyanka took boxing lessons from national women’s coach Hemlata Bagdwal.
“After the first stint of training, Omung wanted Priyanka to train alongside a player, to understand a boxer’s psychology. So she trained for about four months with national-level boxer Jharna Sanghvi who has been part of many national camps,” says Saharan. “Priyanka boxed like a well-trained athlete in the movie and nobody can make out whether she is a professional boxer or an actor,” says Mary Kom. “She even visited Manipur and spent two days with me.”
Had it not been for husband Onler Kom’s sacrifices though, Mary Kom wouldn’t have been able to achieve the heights she has risen to. After becoming a mother, Mary Kom’s father dissuaded her from making a comeback, fearing that she might spoil her reputation.
But her husband Onler Kom stood by her, gave up his own ambition of becoming a lawyer and relieved her of the responsibility of taking care of the kids.
"In a way, Onler is like a mother to my kids," says Mary Kom. "At times I am away from my kids for months and Nainai especially misses me a lot. He starts weeping whenever I call home. In my absence, Onler also takes care of my academy," she says.
The MC Mary Kom Boxing Academy was launched in Imphal in 2006 to promote local boxing talent in her home state.
The reel and the real
While watching the movie, audiences may wonder just how much of Mary Kom’s life has been spiced up with filmi masala. "There is no change in my life’s script," she says. "But yes, little bits of drama have been added. Who will watch a movie if there is no drama? For instance, I do go to church with my husband and hang out with him. But we don’t sing and there isn’t music running in the background! But you can’t have a Bollywood movie without songs. So I don’t think there should be any problem with the dramatisation, as long as the facts related to my life are not distorted."
Still, fellow boxers say that a few interesting additions could have been made to the biopic. "In the movie, Kom goes to represent the country directly from Manipur without attending a national camp," points out boxer Preeti Singh, one of Mary Kom’s closest friends.
There are many interesting facets to Mary Kom that fans might not be aware of. Her agility and sharp reflexes, for instance, are part of boxing lore. During a national camp at Delhi’s Indira Gandhi Stadium in 2002, she killed a snake. During another camp at Hisar, Haryana, she was seen catching squirrels in and around the camp area. Whenever she finds time, Mary Kom likes to cook for her family. Although she mostly eats boiled food, she can also whip up finger-licking fish and rice dishes.
Although most athletes, particularly boxers, are known to be feisty and muscular, Mary Kom has her feminine, girly side. Also, she is a bit of a fashionista. She loves tuning in to Fashion TV and taking design inspiration for her clothes from the shows. Generally, she likes to wear Western ensembles, paint her nails in bright colours and buy cosmetics when she is abroad for tournaments. Mary Kom loves make-up. She says she can do make-up as well as the best Bollywood professionals.
Whatever she does, the five-time world champion makes a good fist of it!
Mary, Mary, quite contrary
The air crash
If you remember, one of the sequences in the film shows Mary Kom as a little girl visiting an air crash site and picking up a boxing glove. An Indian Airlines plane did crash on August 16, 1991, at the Thangjing Ching mountain range near Mary Kom ’s village. There were no survivors. But in real life, the crash had nothing to do with her first brush with boxing.
In the movie, Priyanka Chopra is shown engaging in fights for money. In real life, Mary Kom did get into fights during school. At times they were sparked off by remarks passed by some unruly boys. At others, she fought while standing up for her friends. “I had street fights with boys but I never fought for money,” she says.
The movie shows that love blossomed between Mary Kom and Onler Kom after a fight where she was boxing for money in Manipur. She loses the bout and he offers to drop her back after the fight. But in real life, they met in Delhi after a training session in 2000. After a five-year-long courtship, they got married.
A close shave
In the movie, Priyanka, playing Mary Kom, shaves her head during a training camp. In real life, too, Mary Kom did the same. “While travelling to Bangalore for a camp in May 2001, Mary Kom’s purse and passport were stolen in the train. On the first day, she landed with a shaved head. When asked by the coach why she did so, she replied that somebody had stolen her things. To make sure God punished the culprit, she had shaved her head to symbolise the death of that thief in anticipation. “I realised that Mary was different from other girls in the camp,” recalls chief coach Anup Kumar.
The heart operation
The movie shows that Mary Kom’s son gets operated on while she is abroad for the World Championship in 2008. But in real life, the surgery took place in 2011, once she returned home. One of the her twins Khupneivar (Nainai) had a hole in his heart and got operated in Chandigarh.
The hole was detected during the Asian Championships in China in 2011. Mary Kom wanted to skip the championship, but played on at her husband’s insistence, and had a very difficult time in China worrying about her child’s health. She went on to win gold and caught the flight home the same night. She reached just in time for the surgery.
Rebika Chiru, a national-level boxer, first informed Mary Kom about women’s boxing being introduced at the Sports Authority of India’s Imphal centre. Just like in the movie, Mary Kom did go to the centre. “I went looking for Ibomcha sir [L Ibomcha Singh] while a training session was on. He told me to wait. He was ready to take me under his wing, but his contention was that I won’t be able to cope,” she recalls.
From HT Brunch, September 21
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