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Exclusive: Chak De's real-life hero
By Anand Philar
Friday, 17 August , 2007, 10:19
Last Updated: Friday, 17 August , 2007, 16:09

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.

All about Chak De India | Movie Stills: Chak De India | Premiere Pics | Review

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 gushed forth.

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 sessions.

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.

All about Chak De India | Movie Stills: Chak De India | Premiere Pics | Review

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