From darkness to light

Harrowing times… India’s goalkeeper Mir Ranjan Negi fails to baulk this one from Pakistan’s Hassan Sardar in the final of the 1982 Asian Games in New Delhi.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

The public perception of Mir Ranjan Negi has changed dramatically. Twenty-five years after that humiliating defeat to Pakistan in the Asian Games final in New Delhi, for which he was blamed, Negi is back in the spotlight. “People realised what I went through all these years, so their anger is now replaced by affection,” says the former India goalkeeper in a chat with Nandakumar Marar.

The Hindi film, ‘Chak de India’, changed Mir Ranjan Negi’s life considerably. The people easily identified with the hero in the movie, Kabir Khan (played by Shah Rukh Khan) — the character was inspired by the real life experiences of the former India goalkeeper.

In the men’s hockey final of the 1982 Asian Games in New Delhi, India suffered a humiliating 1-7 defeat at the hand of Pakistan, which was watched live by a whole nation on Doordarshan. Negi was condemned as a “traitor” for letting in the seven goals. He then went into depression after being blamed for India’s disgraceful defeat.

Twenty-five years later, in the wake of ‘Chak de India’s’ phenomenal success at the box office, the public’s perception of Negi has changed dramatically. And the former India player is completely amazed. Even people with little knowledge of hockey recognise Negi as the real life Kabir Khan and express their admiration for his resilience and commitment to the sport.

“People realised what I went through all these years, so their anger is now replaced by affection. I don’t need to explain the past anymore to anyone, it is public knowledge,” said Negi.

Many years after that miserable final against Pakistan, Negi became the goalkeeping coach of the Indian men’s team that went on to win the gold at the 1998 Bangkok Asian Games. Though he was removed as the goalkeeping coach along with chief coach M. K. Kaushik and a few key players on return from Bangkok, Negi later agreed to coach the Indian women’s team at the 2003 Afro-Asian Games in Hyderabad, where the host won the gold.

Negi was yet to recover from a personal tragedy — he had lost his son in a road accident — when he got an offer from Yash Raj Films to work with the ‘Chak de India’ unit as a technical expert. He had to train the actors to play hockey.

“I was numb with shock and in no state to leave my grieving wife Vinita alone at home and get involved in the making of the movie. I tried to convince the people of Yash Raj Films to look at other alternatives, and even initiated meetings between them and Olympians Mervyn Fernandes, Dhanraj Pillay and coach Clarence Lobo. But they insisted on having me, and agreed to my wife’s presence at shootings,” Negi revealed.

After the release of ‘Chak de India’, Negi’s popularity soared. He has had a number of felicitations in his honour, while newspapers have been competing with one another to get his interview. The Mumbai Customs Superintendent has also had radio talk shows and currently he is one of the invitees on a celebrity dance show on TV.

'The Asia Cup triumph this year is an opportunity to celebrate. If only the people running the sport can use this chance to consolidate and promote the game, then Indian hockey will have more followers.'-

Negi spoke to Sportstar recently on his life after ‘Chak de India’.

The excerpts:

Question: Was Shah Rukh Khan’s portrayal of Kabir Khan as spectacular as visualised? Did ‘Chak de India’ affect your life in any way?

Answer: Only Shah Rukh Khan could have done it. He has played hockey before, so he looked natural in the hockey scenes. The movie affected my life a lot. Seeing the public react after watching the movie was as if the 1982 Asian Games happened yesterday, not 25 years ago. People understand now that a player cannot solely be blamed for his team’s failure, and I guess they somehow want to make amends for their earlier mistakes.

‘Chak de India’ put women’s hockey in the limelight. Is the sport really like how it is shown in the movie?

There are similarities between the real life experiences of hockey players and the movie, such as the pressures faced by the Indian players in matches against Pakistan, the problems faced by National coaches in managing the seniors, and the groupism among the players. But some scenes are imaginary, visualised by the writer using the creative freedom granted to him. The scene where the penalty strokes are taken, coaches actually don’t shout to the goalkeeper as shown in the movie. In reality, communication between the coach and the goalkeeper happens through discrete hand signals.

In the Afro-Asian Games women’s hockey final, India’s goalkeeper Helen Mary trusted my intuition about which way the South African would push from the penalty spot. We won the gold in the penalty shootout, thanks to Helen Mary who was a sensation.

What is holding back Indian hockey? Will the success of ‘Chak de India’ impact the sport in a positive way?

Victories help in increasing the popularity of a sport. The gold medal we won at the 1998 Bangkok Asian Games was an opportunity lost. Instead of victory rallies and nationwide euphoria, the coaching staff and the stars of the victorious Indian team were sacked. Indian hockey has not enjoyed many victories, so the Asia Cup triumph this year is an opportunity to celebrate. If only the people running the sport can use this chance to consolidate and promote the game, then Indian hockey will have more followers. Hockey is now the talking point in homes.

India’s Asia Cup triumph was remarkable for the number of field goals scored by our forwards. Goalkeeper Baljit Singh was named the Player of the Final after we won 7-2 against Korea. Your comment.

India’s strength lies in its ability to score more goals than the opposition. Over the years, we had diluted this quality while trying to learn European defensive tactics. In the Asia Cup, we played to our strength. As a former India goalkeeper, I am delighted that a goalkeeper got due credit for the role he played in his team’s victory. Usually forwards get the awards in such a high-scoring matches.

Australia’s Ric Charlesworth has been given the task of overhauling Indian hockey. Your impressions?

Ric Charlesworth is a multi-faceted personality. I remember saving a penalty stroke taken by him in the 1982 World Cup in Mumbai. He went on to become a hockey great, a noted coach in women’s hockey. He has played cricket and recently was teaching management techniques to the corporates. He has a different way of getting things done and his appointment as the technical advisor is the best thing to happen to Indian hockey.

Looking back at the 1982 Asian Games final, what happened to India? Was it because of the pressure of playing against Pakistan?

Playing Pakistan is always a pressure situation. In the final of the 1982 Asian Games, the pressure was too much for us to handle. The hype over the India-Pakistan final affected us. Mohd Shahid was my room-mate, we could not get proper sleep two nights before the big game. Match tickets were being sold at a premium; many could not get tickets and were forced to watch the final on Doordarshan, which, for the first time, was telecasting a major sports event live.

The anxiety of playing the big match seemed to affect our coaches too, because the team that was announced on the morning of the match was different to the one that finally took the field. Rajinder Singh Sr., one of India’s penalty corner experts, played despite a knee problem and without the team management testing whether he was match fit. Our coaches kept telling us to play all-out, but had no plan to counter the deadly Pakistan forward-line comprising Hassan Sardar, Kalimullah and Hanif Khan. The pressure appeared to have frozen the coach’s thinking too; otherwise after India conceded three goals they could have changed the goalkeeper.

Why were you targeted for India’s failure? How did you handle the situation?

People thought I had deserted the goalpost after seeing the Pakistan forwards scoring into an empty goal repeatedly. I guess there was some editing problem with the Doordarshan telecast because no footages of me charging out to hustle the Pakistan forwards were shown. Our defence was getting beaten and faced with these one-to-one situations, I had to react and try to take the Pakistan forwards by surprise. I don’t blame the public for getting angry with my performance. The flames of hatred were fanned by poor journalism, with many papers carrying stories alleging that I had been paid by Pakistan. As if India’s 7-1 defeat was not humiliating enough, these conspiracy reports, carried by certain papers without proof or verifying the facts, left me in a state of shock.

The life of Kabir Khan in ‘Chak de India’ has parallels to your own experiences.

What I went through after the Delhi Asian Games final was similar to Kabir Khan’s experience, but much more horrifying than what was shown in the movie. The public outrage, fuelled by newspaper reports that alleged I had accepted money from Pakistan, resulted in abuses and stone throwing at me. We didn’t eat for two days after the final. We then went to a hotel in Delhi, only to find an angry public abusing us for partying after losing.

When I reached the Delhi railway station to take the train for home, some people recognised my face and soon an angry crowd assembled at the platform. After reaching Indore, I faced more insults as the people made sarcastic remarks at me and my family in public. The newspapers carried reports of imminent CBI raids at my home even without verifying the facts with me or with the authorities.

When I resumed work in Mumbai, my colleagues kept a distance from me for fear of getting involved in a CBI inquiry. Life became hell; I became depressed, and at one stage even thought of committing suicide.

How did you agree to involve yourself in the making of ‘Chak de India’ even though you were aware that the film will open old wounds?

I was not aware of the script when I started coaching the girls to play hockey. I broke down after going through the script, especially where I had to assist the film crew in hockey sequences such as the match against Pakistan where Kabir Khan is shown scooping the ball over the crossbar after volunteering to take the penalty stroke.

The movie has brought you recognition. People from all over India are talking about you. Any plans to use this goodwill in a positive way, for the benefit of Indian hockey?

Not just me, even the ‘Chak de India’ girls are famous now. The hard work they put in to learn to play hockey has paid off. I have already launched a foundation in memory of my late son to promote hockey. Workshop in colleges is the first step.

Youngsters who wish to take up hockey after being inspired by the movie need a starting point. We aim to create an atmosphere where the first-timers can have fun with a ball and a hockey stick. Hockey is people’s game, so the effort will be to attract more participants.