“No, you cannot do it. How can you? You have no backers.” But Bani Singh was not deterred by these voices. Her close relatives found it incredible that Bani had embarked on an ambitious project to document a slice of hockey history nearly lost to the ages. But Bani was smitten by the idea of capturing on film the story of her father Grahnandan Singh, who was in the team that won the first Olympic hockey gold for independent India in 1948. And, as poetic justice would have it, India had defeated England in the finals in London.
Bani’s documentary project, five years in the making, is now in danger of being derailed. The furniture designer turned film-maker finds herself drawn up against an unexpected wall—for the archival footage of the 1948 final she is being asked to cough up 9000 pounds per minute by the London-based Olympic Television Archive Bureau (OTAB). In all, the film’s requirement of footage will cost the film-maker at least Rs 30 lakh.
A frustrated Bani is trying to convince OTAB and other archival sources like British Pathe of her limited resources as well as her passion for a story that has, besides hockey, the poignancy of Partition, the break-up of the Lahore-based United Punjab team and the arduous journey her father undertook to India as refugee before wresting a place in the hockey team. In its intersections between sports and socio-politics, this is mined from a seam of historical gold.
Grahnandan Singh taking a shot in London, 1948
Ironically, a celluloid version of the 1948 game, titled Gold, has been made starring Akshay Kumar. “Here I am trying to document the real story of the game through the recollections of my father, who was in the 1948 team. And along comes a fictionalised version. Unbelievable,” says Bani.
About the steep price of archival footage, Bani says, “How can someone like me, who started making the film on my own resources with some backing from my brother, hope to make such huge payments?”
“I tried explaining to the Olympics bureau that I am just an individual without sponsors, with the sole agenda of telling a story of that particular game since it has so much to do with Partition, the golden era of Asian hockey and colonial history,” says Bani. But little has come of it.
The Olympics body in charge of archives has a multi-tiered price structure. For unrestricted exhibition, it charges 9000 pounds per minute of footage and 4000 pounds if it’s to be screened only in film festivals. The licence is valid only for five years, after which it needs to be renewed by making a fresh payment.
Bani with Grahnandan Singh
OTAB vice-president (rights and sales) James Dobbs says that “as a gesture of goodwill” they might reduce the price by 500 pounds for Bani.
The marginal reduction hardly provides succour to Bani. “The archival cost, in addition to production costs, come close to Rs 50 lakh, and I have no way of raising it,” she says. Unless the OTAB waives the entire charge for the footage or a generous sponsor steps in, the documentary may never get made.
Grahnandan, or Nandy, as his friends call him, was India’s forward in that line-up. “I grew up hearing various tales of hockey from my father. In 2009, he suffered a paralytic stroke and as he struggled to recover, I could see the fighter in him and understood how he had overcome all odds as a refugee to get into the Indian team,” she says.
For someone who had no previous experience in film-making, Bani’s foray into making the documentary was courageous, even foolhardy. “I would approach people with my proposal. Either they would look askance since I had no previous experience or they would be dismissive. Who will see it? Nobody is interested in such films,” she says, recalling the pessimism thrown at her.
That was when Bani, who lived in Bangalore, decided to go it alone, with some help from brother Mano Singh. The very ill, paralysed Grahnandan lived in Delhi and whenever it was her turn to take care of him, Bani prodded him with questions. Depending on his frail, nodding assent (or dissent), she weaved together the story. As Nandy improved, he learnt to write afresh, managing to write down a few memories. “It was a slow, arduous process and over several months I managed to get the story from him. He would direct me to his team members, who then would supplement the story, filling in important details,” she says.
Akshay Kumar stars in the movie Gold
In the process, Bani managed to get on camera legendary players like Balbir Singh and Keshav Datt to speak of their glorious careers, making it a fascinating slice of history. Nandy, Keshav, Balbir and others were from Lahore and part of the undivided Punjab team. Those were the days when India ruled world hockey. Through the reminiscences of these stalwarts, Bani pieced together what it meant to be a hockey player in their time. “Each player had a special quality; none was able to match the agility and technique of the undivided Indian team.”
Everything fell apart during the trauma of Partition. Bani’s father barely survived the violence and managed to flee to Delhi. “Rioters killed an individual in front of my father, who was next in line. When they realised they had murdered an Anglo-Indian, and so fearing the wrath of the British, they dispersed. That is how my father was saved,” she says.
Nandy and his fleeing teammates managed to reach various Indian cities as refugees. Despite the enormous odds presented by torn and bloody lives, they got together and made it back into the Indian hockey team. Bani’s film has all the details, straight from the horse’s mouth.
Not only that, Bani even managed to make a trip to Lahore and returned with even more emotional tales of camaraderie that existed among former players, despite the madness of 1946-47, and the continuing tensions between the two partitioned offspring—India and Pakistan.
Quite naturally, the film strays into Partition history, nuggets of information that throw light on the collective trauma and the tragic strangulation of Asian hockey by the game’s global managers, who changed the rules for it to suit fast-paced European hockey.
Given the obstacles lined up against her, no one knows when Bani’s documentary would see the light of day. Instead of the raw emotions—and the jagged backcloth here—that propel players towards achievements, will India have to stay content with another fictionalised, unsatisfactorily executed Bollywood period drama? Considering the sheer wealth in Bani’s narrative, the least she deserves is a penalty shot, if not a goal on a platter.
By K.S. Dakshina Murthy in Bangalore
(The writer is an independent journalist)