I am no film critic nor do I much care for the Bollywood stuff (the see-it,
enjoy-it and forget-it types, I mean). However, I made it a point to watch
Chak de India only because it was about a sport closest to my heart and
more importantly because the film is based on the life of Mir Ranjan Negi, my
friend of 25 years and the original Kabir Khan whom Shah Rukh Khan portrayed
with customary élan.
Some three weeks ago, Negi called me from his hometown Mumbai. After due
apologies for not keeping in touch for nearly six months, he said he was busy
with an SRK film called Chak de India!. “It was a fantastic experience.
You should see the film for the sake of our friendship and let me know your
thoughts,” he told me. “I cannot tell you much about it since the film is yet to
be released, but I will talk to you again soon.”
Watching Kabir Khan being branded a ‘traitor’ in the film after missing a
goal against Pakistan, his subsequent ‘resurrection’ as the coach of a Team
India that eventually goes on to win the ‘World Cup’ beating Australia in the
tie-breaker and listening to many of the dialogues and incidents depicted in the
film triggered waves of nostalgia in me. I actually lived my career as a
professional hockey journalist during the screening.
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I had covered the 7-1 drubbing Pakistan handed out to India in the 1982 Asian
Games final, which turned goalkeeper Negi’s life upside down. He was literally
pilloried by armchair critics, the media and an ignorant public for letting in
so many goals. Some of the tabloids even ran headlines crying out that Pakistan
had bribed Negi and that he was a “traitor”. I was shocked by these insinuations
and innuendoes. In my reports, I strongly defended Negi, while blaming the deep
defence, especially Rajinder Singh (Sr) who played the game with a dodgy knee
that hampered his mobility.
On my return to Bangalore, I was criticised for being ‘soft’ on Negi. Being
much younger then, I argued vehemently, even with my own colleagues in the
office. In the process, I lost some friends for good. It only made me doubly
determined to get to the bottom of the entire episode and hear from Negi himself
about what exactly happened that winter evening at Delhi’s National Stadium.
A few months later, I persuaded my Editor to let me cover the Bombay Gold Cup
tournament. My hidden agenda was to track Negi down for an interview, as there
was not even a quote from him in the media. It took me nearly a week to finally
trace him to one of the many docks where he was posted (Negi was, and still is,
in the Customs). When I met him, he simply refused to talk. “What’s the point?
You guys in the media seem to know much more than I do. You guys have wrecked my
life and my career. Please go away. I don’t want to see you,” he told me.
However, when I told him that I had defended him in my articles, he agreed to
meet me the following day.
For the interview, Negi brought along a VCR and the video recording of the
’82 final. We went aboard a passenger ship and viewed the entire tape. It lasted
nearly four hours as Negi replayed the goals, analysed the Indian mistakes and
came to the same conclusions I had reached. He then bared his heart to me, often
weeping like a child and narrated the horrifying days following the final.
“Everywhere I went, I was abused by the public. Nothing matters to me more
than playing for my country. I am a proud Indian and will always be so. There
were lots of things that happened in the run-up to the final. You find out. I
will not speak about the politics that contributed to our defeat,” he said.
Back in Bangalore, I wrote a highly emotional piece and sent him a clipping.
Indian hockey's ups and downs | India at 60: Sports Special
Within days, he wrote me a letter (no internet and emails those days), the first
of the many we exchanged. I urged him to get out of the deep depression and stay
away from alcohol, while challenging him to make a comeback. “I would like to
see you back in at least the Bombay team, if not the Indian team. You still have
plenty of hockey in you, so don’t waste it,” I told him.
In 1987, Negi called me up and said: “My friend, I am in the Bombay team. I
will be coming to Bangalore for the National championship and let’s celebrate my
comeback!” He treated me to a lavish lunch. It was an emotional outing as we
laughed and even shed a few tears like a couple of kids, happy that Negi had
fully recovered from the trauma of ’82. He was also married and blessed with
children, and promoted.
Fast forward to 1998. Negi called again. “My friend, I am the goalkeeping
coach of the Indian team. Please wish me luck on this happy day. I hope you will
be there in Bangkok for the Asian Games. We will try and win a gold medal. That
would be great, wouldn’t it?” As luck would have it, I was assigned for the
Asiad coverage and we had a great reunion in Bangkok. I told Negi that the team
was good enough to win the gold medal after a lapse of 32 years.
As in Chak de India, our team made it to the final, where we met
Korea. The match ended in a draw, again as in the movie. Then came the barren
extra-time and the tie-breaker. Goalkeeper Ashish Ballal came up with a couple
of great saves and India clinched the gold medal. Again, as in the movie, the
celebrations were wild and memorable. I jumped the barricades to get on to the
field, seeking Negi. We hugged and cried, but said nothing to each other. Words
were not necessary. The gold medal was the salvation that Negi was seeking and I
was happy for him.
But then, on returning home, Negi and chief coach MK Kaushik were sacked
along with six senior players, including Ballal. The Indian Hockey Federation,
in typical fashion, had killed the goose that had laid the golden egg.
In the years that followed, Negi and I kept in touch. Yesterday, I messaged
him to say I got tickets for Chak de... He replied: “Just sit back and
enjoy. No finding faults.” A little past midnight, within a minute after the
movie ended, Negi called me from Mumbai. “How did you like it? Hope you enjoyed
the movie! Did you like the theme song? How was SRK?” Questions rained on me.
Over the next hour, we exchanged notes as he gave me an insight into the
making of the movie, his experiences with SRK and the hours he spent coaching
the girls, some of whom did not know even how to grip a hockey stick at first.
”I had to plan every hockey move shown in the movie, including the penalty
stroke that SRK missed. That shot alone took us nearly 20 hours as I was keen
that it should be very realistic. I took the help of a lot of my former
teammates. But more importantly, it was so easy working with SRK. He is
unbelievably modest and was willing to do as many re-takes as we wanted,” Negi
Negi’s life has changed since the release of the film. “I cannot believe the
number of calls I am getting. Most people liked the film. My life has turned a
full circle, but I cannot fully erase the pain of 1982. People, especially the
media, always ask me about that final. Anyway, the film has done a lot of good
for my wife. It has helped get her out of depression,” he said. The depression
had been brought on by the death of their son in a road accident. Negi had
called me up then. He could barely speak a word, choked as he was with sadness.
“First, it was 1982 and now this. Why is God against me? What have I done to
deserve this?” he cried out. I had no words to offer except to say: “He who
takes, also gives. You are strong and you can get over this.”
I thought that SRK did a decent job portraying such an eventful life, though
Negi is a far more sensitive personality. Acting as a ruthless coach determined
to tame the arrogant seniors in the team, SRK also reminded me of the present
coach of Indian men’s hockey team, Joaquim “Jack” Carvalho, whom I have known
for over 20 years.
Like SRK, Jack too benched a couple of adamant senior players who now form
the core group of the side. And again, like SRK, Jack does not wear headphones
during a match to keep in touch with his assistants seated high up in the
stands. Some of SRK’s dialogues are much the same as Jack uses during training
But most of all, the film flooded me with a good feeling that finally, for
Negi, the ghosts of his past have been exorcised to an extent. In any case, he
has now learnt to live with them.
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