Back in 2007, I fired out some mails trying to get entry for an Indian team into an international rugby tournament due to be played in London. Friends were sceptical in India, no one took it too seriously in London. But I kept knocking at the door! (More Sports News)
Little did I imagine that 15 years later, I’d be excited about a movie that told the story of the adventure of the “KISS Jungle Crows” team. How 12 children from a school in Bhubaneswar, were trained in rugby over four months, got their first shoes, managed to have passports made, were sick in planes and would surprise everyone by winning the tournament.
What went into this adventure was trust and faith in an idea that on the face of it was just a little bit crazy. Friends who found sponsors, coaches who encouraged the children, teachers who went the extra mile. The team that made the whole thing happen was wide and each played their part, and mostly we are all still connected.
To then make a movie of this mad adventure took an even bigger leap of faith, certainly a much bigger team and a considerably larger budget. That’s the story of Jungle Cry. I was a part of them both.
Over the years after the win, several film makers got in contact talking about making a movie of the story, some more serious than others, all with their own idea of how the story should be told. I was always happy to share my part, tell them how I had been involved, what had happened, how the players had achieved something incredible.
I can remember once being flown to Mumbai for a meeting with an international studio - Jet Lite rather than Lear Jet, but still a bit special. I was shown into a large meeting room and introduced to the proposed director and producer and about five lawyers. They obviously slowly went off the idea and stopped replying to mails. I could see the movie business was lots of ideas, but not every one of them could get to clap of action.
Then I was introduced to Shabbir Boxwala, who at the time was I think best known for ‘Ishq Forever’. I should probably point out am not a movie nut, enjoy films for sure, but not a buff and I’d never heard of or seen ‘Ishq Forever’.
Shabbir seemed like the kind of person who made things happen, and I was happy to share the story with him. Time passed, the movies on, the movies off, it’ll star this actor, it’ll have no star, I was learning that the movie business was often a long wait. All patience then crazy action!
The journey begins
Fast forward to October 2018 and am travelling from Kolkata to Bhubaneswar with 10 boys who have been selected from our Jungle Crows rugby team to be actors in the still unnamed crazy rugby film adventure thing. I was feeling a bit sweaty but that was fine, hot weather and normal excitement.
Day one on set and I get to meet Abhay Deol who is the film's hero playing Rudrakesh, the sports teacher from KISS (Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences) who took the children to the UK. Day two, I came round on the bathroom floor with the concerned faces of the boys looking over me.
Carried to hospital, not from some movie stunt or overcome by the show biz of it all, but the bite of a dengue mosquito, some wild dreams and much still remains a blur of those days. I got back on set in time for Cyclone Titli to have us all taking shelter. I was getting all the drama I needed.
One of my main aims in being involved in the production was to ensure the rugby scenes were good. That they looked realistic, had drama yes, but that the rules of rugby were followed and could also be understood, we needed to develop some understanding of the game for the audience.
The ’real’ stuff
There are some hilarious takes on rugby in the world of Indian cinema and few of them are based on any sort of real understanding of the sport. Rahul Bose may have played rugby for India, Sidharth Malhotra may play for the Delhi Hurricanes but neither of them was involved in the movie ‘Sye’ whose murderous rugby action scene is now legendary and viral across the rugby world. That sort of infamy was not part of our plan.
Expert sports director Rob Miller was on set from day one and brought experience from Chak De India, Bhaag Milka Bhaag and Mary Kom. The actor playing me was Stewart Wright and he had played rugby for England as an 18-year-old before swapping turf for stage.
And all but one of the youngsters acting as the rugby players were actual rugby players. The first challenge was to get them to actually drop balls and play very slowly as though they were just picking up the game.
In our first rugby match scenes, we had to take some of the boys aside to explain several times that this was not a real game, as they would get caught up in the moment and go away from the plan and try to win. Passing, running and scoring away from the camera!
Soon the trailers of workers and equipment were being packed up and moved 5000 miles from Bhubaneswar to Swansea. While the 2007 tournament had been played in London, for the movie the South Wales rugby heartlands of Swansea and Llanelli had given the warmest of welcomes for production. But it was November and cold!
This was where another of the stars got to shine as Emily Shah welcomed the team as physio and mentor Roshni. While all the crew could wrap up warm and sip on coffee, for the players these were tough times. For all of them this was the first time out of India and into the chill and rain of a Welsh winter.
The short winter days presented new challenges and the rugby dramatisation took on a whole new life as it needed to match up to plenty of local expertise. I was able to drop in to encourage the players and carry their coats which they dived into as soon as the director Sagar Ballary shouted cut.
As we came up to the deadline of shooting in Wales more and more filming had to be crammed into fewer and fewer hours. But we made it and the film was in the can.
The home run
Post production took a while - there really is a lot of waiting in this industry - but by March 2020 we were ready for a mini preview event in Llanelli South Wales. But as anyone reading this will know, it wasn’t just Jungle Cry getting ready to be released. COVID also struck. I flew back to India just after the screening on one of the last flights, the world had gone in a direction none of us could have imagined and for then at least no chance of a release for our Jungle Cry.
We jump forward to May 2022 and suddenly it does seem surreal that the film is about to launch - in cinemas in UK and USA and on the Lionsgate platform in India. Friends are calling and asking about it. A couple of amazing songs are out and I can’t wait to see the final movie.
The progress of sports in India since 2007 has been phenomenal. Dr Samantha at KISS immediately saw the potential sport could have in being a positive change and making an impact.
Bhubaneswar has gone from a quiet city into a sporting metropolis, hosting world standard events and promoting Odisha globally. I like to think that KISS Jungle Crows played a small part in this genesis. Mighty oaks from little acorns grow!
(Paul Walsh is a former British diplomat, who quit his job to empower underprivileged children in Kolkata through rugby)