Big men on big screen

The Authorized Biography of Mahavir 

Singh Phogat
Saurabh Duggal
219 pages; Rs 250

Deedara AKA Dara Singh!
Seema Sonik Alimchand
249 pages; Rs 499

When Geeta Phogat flung Emily Bensted of Australia on the mat, claiming India’s first ever women’s gold at the Commonwealth Games in 2010, the first person she looked for in the stands was her father and coach, Mahavir Phogat. Twenty-two years before this, when he had first held her in his hands on a cold December morning, he had characteristically defied the disappointment of his Jat family and community at the birth of a daughter instead of a son, and proclaimed, “One day, she will make our family proud.” The narrative of that extraordinary journey is chronicled in journalist Saurabh Duggal’s authorised biography.

Those who have watched Aamir Khan’s recent blockbuster Dangal are somewhat familiar with how a farmer-wrestler from the hinterland of Haryana, the state with the worst sex ratio in the country (879 females for 1,000 males), decided to introduce his daughters and nieces to male-dominated wrestling. Mr Duggal attributes two reasons that might have inspired Mahavir Phogat: First, his guru “Master” Chandgi Ram, gold medallist in Asian Games, 1970, who introduced his daughters, Sonika and Deepika Kalimaran, to the sport in the mid-1990s. Second, a prize money of Rs 1 crore announced by then Haryana chief minister Om Prakash Chautala for anyone winning a gold at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. 

When the prize went unclaimed, Mahavir Phogat decided to train his daughters and nieces so that they could one day claim a similar prize. But, in Hayana’s rural badlands, it was easier said than done. Some critics of Dangal have slammed the film for posing as feminist while conforming to patriarchy because Mahavir Phogat apparently denies his daughters agency while deciding their future as wrestlers. Yet, I would like to argue that to think of agency in terms of academic feminism – as opposed to the real blood-and-sweat struggle of Mahavir Phogat – is an error. That Mr Phogat could imagine a more equal life for his daughters, without access to any enlightening philosophy, while being surrounded by a parochial society where female foeticide and child marriage are the norm, is in itself remarkable.

Mr Duggal’s style is pared down, journalistic, without even a single flourish or linguistic callisthenic. Like most authorised biographies, the narrative at times veers on a hagiography, but a mixture of humour and good-natured irreverence comes to its rescue. The descriptions of the cat-and-mouse games played by a domineering Mahavir Phogat and his truant trainees over gruelling sessions lights up the narrative. While the language may seem bland at times, it is perhaps the best means of chronicling the extraordinary narrative. 

A complete contrast to Mr Duggal’s style is the narrative technique adopted by Seema Sonik Alimchand, the author of the second book under review. This one, too, is about a champion wrestler: In fact, possibly India’s most famous representative in the international sport, Dara Singh. But unlike Mahavir Phogat, who had to be represented on the big screen by Aamir Khan, Singh was also a very successful actor, albeit very often in B-grade movies. Naturally, a pared-down style is insufficient for his king-sized life, and Ms Alimchand uses Bollywood-style melodrama. For instance, early in the book an aged Singh is rushed to Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani Hospital on July 7, 2012. The third-person narrative suddenly shifts perspective, merely by the use of italics in running text, and the readers get to see what the soul of a comatose Singh sees on leaving his hospital bed. Too much? It depends really on your tastes.

To be fair, Ms Alimchand’s research is thorough. She provides intricate details of pre-Independence rural Punjab, where Singh grew up, and the travel of labour from India to eastern nations such as Singapore and Malaysia. Singh’s many victories in the ring, in India and abroad, culminating in Commonwealth Championship, 1959, where he defeated George Gordienko and his legendary rivalry with Emile Czaja (better known as “King Kong”) are described with all the flourish of Golden Age Technicolor films. Reading these two books back-to-back also reveals how sports and the lives of athletes have changed over the years. As Ms Alimchand narrates, after a match in Guwahati, Singh’s rival Pat Roche was stabbed by a member of the frenzied audience. Such an incident would be, thankfully, unthinkable now.

The book also offers a glimpse into the world of B-grade Bollywood films. Though Singh made his big screen debut with Sangdil in 1952, for the most part of his decades-long career, he worked in low-budget projects. Between 1962 and 1966, he paired up with Mumtaz (later a top leading lady) for about 16 films, becoming the highest paid actors in their league. He also collaborated with Babubhai Mistry, a leading innovator of special effects in Bollywood, in number of films such as King Kong,, which are all but forgotten now. These don’t make it to regular histories of Hindi films, but need to be chronicled — and are a delight to all connoisseurs.

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