Aamir Khan’s Dangal, based on the inspiring story of wrestler Geeta Phogat and her father Mahavir Singh Phogat, is being dubbed as the most successful film of 2016. If we are to go by the box-office collections, Dangal has turned out to be the highest earning Hindi film ever, after having grossed more than Rs 300 crore within four weeks of its release.
Films based on life of sportspersons have mostly been received well by the audience. Before Dangal, the two films that won hearts at the box office were Mary Kom and Bhag Milkha Bhag, with both crossing the Rs 100-crore mark.
What makes these films hugely successful is the inspiration they exude. Every time we see a sportsperson’s journey — from struggle to success — on celluloid, our chins go up in pride. Also, each time we see the Tricolor unfurl onscreen, we are filled with a sense of patriotism.
When I watched Dangal, I too went through similar emotions. Having said that, I also had several questions racing through my mind. I wondered how these films glamorised the struggle these sportspersons had to go through, stirring public emotions and making money in the process.
Also, whether the life stories of these legends inspire the posterity to take up sports as a career?
What is it that doesn’t make us a nation of sportspersons despite the potential our population has in it?
I decided to travel to Bhidausa — a small village in Madhya Pradesh’s Morena district. This village belongs to the legendary steeplechase athlete-turned-dacoit/rebel, Paan Singh Tomar. Tigmanshu Dhulia had made a film on the legend of Paan Singh Tomar in 2012. The film captured the rise of the seven-time national champion, who also represented India in the 1958 Asian Games in Tokyo, and the story of him turning into a dreaded bandit of the Chambal ravines. This film too was loved by the audience and earned good money at the box office.
|A still from the movie Paan Singh Tomar.|
Bhidausa is one of the 53 villages that fall under Sihoniyan Police Station in the Chambal Division of Morena District and is known for some of the most-dreaded bandits Chambal has ever seen. Though the bandits don’t exist any longer, Morena is definitely the hotspot of caste-related crimes.
When I visited the village, there was a group of little boys following me through the narrow dusty lanes. Curious if a sporting legend as Paan Singh inspired them to take up sports, I asked them the same question and their response was a "no". In fact, very few kids knew about Paan Singh’s history as a champion athlete.
Most of them knew him only as a baaghi (rebel).
Dashrath Singh Tomar, nephew of Paan Singh Tomar, told me how his uncle’s sporting achievements were overshadowed by his identity of a baaghi. That they look up to him as a man of principles who stood against the system for justice. As far as sports is concerned, no one remembers him as an athlete. No one in Bhidausa knew about the record Paan Singh set in 3000m steeplechase category in the 1958 National Games by finishing the race in 9 minutes and 12.4 seconds. And that his record stood unbroken for a decade.
His sporting achievements seem to have been dusted off the memories of Bhidausa village ever since the MP Police gunned him down on October 1, 1981.
Paan Singh Tomar stands as a tragic example of a talent gone to waste. A year after his death, Delhi hosted the Asian Games and topped the medals tally. Perhaps, Tomar too would have contributed another gold to the tally of 88 medals if he had continued as a star athlete. Instead, he took to banditry after having failed to convince the civil and police administration that he and his family needed police protection following a feud over ancestral land.
Ironically, there are more stories of apathy towards sportspersons than motivating tales of encouragement from the government. Heartbreaking stories of bright sportspersons who fade into oblivion for the want of financial support and infrastructure.
Sita Sahu from Rewa in Madhya Pradesh bagged bronze in the Athens Special Olympics in 2011. Currently, she helps her brother in his pani puri stall to make both ends meet.
Nisha Rani Dutt, 21-year-old archer from Jharkhand works for a nationalised bank as a clerk and earns Rs 10,000 a month. Nisha had to sell her Korean bow for repairing her dilapidated home.
S. Santhi from Tamil Nadu had made India proud in the Doha Asian Games by winning a silver in 800mt event. Today, she works as a daily wage labourer earning less than Rs 200 a day.
India’s luge athlete and Olympian Shiva Keshavan has represented the country five times at Olympics and has won the Asian championship twice besides being an Asian speed record holder. Shiva has had his share of struggle in getting government support for aiding his training. He pulled out of Luge World Championship in Germany due to lack of funds. In a nation that has cricket as the lone bright spot, other forms of sports and athletes have always been at the receiving end.
Since we first participated in the Olympic Games in 1900, India has managed to win only 26 medals, far less than smaller countries like Jamaica, Thailand and Morocco. Given the population India has and the amount of sporting talent that it demonstrates in domestic events, India should be on a par with most of the performing nations like the US, China or UK.
The last four times India participated in Olympics, the medals tally looked disappointing. In 2004, we managed to win only one medal, in 2008, we improved by two and ended up having three on the medals tally. In 2012, we managed to pull six. In Rio last year, our performance fell once again and we came back with barely two medals in our kitty.
While we usually blame the crumbling sports infrastructure and corruption in sports administrative bodies, the real problem lies in the lack of sporting culture in our country. The successive governments never placed sports as part of their national policy agenda.
There was no department dedicated to sports before the Asian Games were held in New Delhi in 1982. The name of the department was further amended as department of youth affairs & sports as part of the International Youth Year in 1985. Until 2000, the need for a separate ministry for sports was never felt. It was in 2000 that the Ministry of Youth Affairs & Sports came into being.
Also, we have never had any sportsperson as a minister managing the sports portfolio. Though it is hard to find an athlete turning to politics, even if there were any, the successive governments never seemed serious about considering this as a smart option.
After all, sports has always slipped off the government radar. For instance, in the current cabinet, Col Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, is a minister of state for I&B despite having an Olympic silver under his belt. Having Rathore as the sports minister would have ensured that issues faced by sportsmen would have been dealt with professionally.
Even the annual budgetary allocation for sports is never encouraging. Last year, finance minister Arun Jaitley announced a marginal hike of Rs 50 crore for sports during the annual financial budget. A total of Rs 1,592 crore were allocated for the sports ministry as compared to Rs 1,541 crore allocated the year before that.
The ministry had announced a specialised talent search scheme in 2014 to identify 75,000 boys and girls between the age group of 8 and 12 years. That initiative has barely taken the shape of a talent search portal to identify talented sportspersons from rural India. There is not much headway in this direction.
It is strange how the government can see merit in building statues as opposed to spending on the overhaul of sports infrastructure in the country. The government’s decision to invest a whopping Rs 3,694 crore into the construction of Shivaji Memorial in Mumbai is bizarre.
The cost of the statue itself is seven times the total budget set aside for the maintenance of open spaces in the city. The government’s misplaced priorities have resulted in a grim state of affairs as far as sports is concerned.
Sports is not considered a career option in India as sporting achievement doesn’t guarantee economic security. Though national and international level sportspersons find government and PSU jobs, those who do not have the required qualification are left hand to mouth.
The hope for sports in India can only be revived through strong political will. The manner in which our political establishment connects national pride to everything else but sports needs to change. Perhaps the day the government delivers its promise of opening universities for sport in each zone, the budding talent will have access to sports as a curriculum, thereby inculcating a culture of sports in every household.