When Ashutosh Gowarikar’s "Lagaan" hit theaters in 2001, it sparked a sort of enthusiasm that was unheard-of for an Indian sports drama set in the heart of rural India. Undeniably, Aamir Khan’s vigorous presence in the film put paid to all box office jitters as the masses thronged the theaters to witness the star play the country’s most popular sport and use it as a cultural weapon against colonial oppression.
That said, the essence of the film is so universal that it soon transcended Khan’s stardom and became a potent symbol of human struggle, notwithstanding its regional backdrop and the inextricable socio-historical context.
What "Lagaan" effectively managed to accomplish was a marriage between the twin pillars of India’s popular culture – cricket and Bollywood. It did set a precedent for the sports drama genre in mainstream Hindi cinema and made it a bankable option for producers.
While many have tried to replicate the Lagaan-esque euphoria over the past two decades, with some attaining success and the majority failing, we are yet to see a Hindi film that projects football as the centerpiece of an anti-colonial narrative.
This cinematic apathy towards Indian football could be justified if we look at the relative standing of football and cricket in India. While football’s popularity is limited to a few parts like West Bengal, Kerala, Goa and the Northeast, cricket enjoys a pan-India fanaticism, thanks to the boom ushered in by the 1983 Prudential Cup triumph.
In Bengali cinema, however, the scenario has been different. Hailed as the “El Dorado” of Indian football, the Kolkata maidan has been an integral part of every Bengali’s cultural identity. Here, allegiances are not made but pre-destined. If you’re a Bengali, you’re born as a supporter of East Bengal/Mohun Bagan/Mohammedan and you'll have to live with this identity until your last breath.
No wonder the “beautiful game” has served as the subject for multiple Bengali movies, ranging from classics like "Dhanyee Meye" (1971) and "Saheb" (1981) to a recent hit like "Egaro" (2010). Of these, only "Egaro" contextualizes the sport within India’s freedom movement as it celebrates Mohun Bagan’s ‘barefooted’ win against East Yorkshire Regiment that earned them the 1911 IFA Shield and also revitalized the Swadeshi movement.
Cut to a post-COVID milieu in 2021. Football is all set to return to the big screen, as director Dhrubo Banerjee and SVF (the largest production house in East India) have teamed up to tell the patriotic story of how a certain Nagendra Prasad Sarbadhikari became the “Father of Indian Football” and inspired a bunch of youngsters to take on the British on the football pitch, in the late 19th century. Titled "Golondaaj" and starring Bengali superstar Dev in the lead, the film is slated for release on 10 October in theaters across West Bengal.
Sportskeeda’s Ritam Basu recently caught up with the director of "Golondaaj". Here are the excerpts.
"How many of us even know who Nagendra Prasad was?" - Dhrubo Banerjee
Ever since the project was announced a couple of years back, "Golondaaj" has created quite a buzz. Much of it can be attributed to Dev’s presence as the lead, who is arguably one of the biggest commercial stars in Bengali cinema at present. However, the subject of the film is unique in itself and with SVF producing it, the scale was always meant to be grand. But the question is – ‘Who was Nagendra Prasad Sarbadhikari?’
To learn more about this man, we must travel one-and-a-half centuries back in time, when football had recently made inroads into the Indian landscape. Noted football historian and commentator Novy Kapadia begins the opening chapter of his book, “Barefoot to Boots: The Many Lives of Indian Football” by writing,
“History, it is often said, is made more by accident than design. In 1877, when Kolkata was still the capital of British India, a ten-year-old boy named Nagendra Prasad Sarbadhikari was riding with his mother to the Ganges in a carriage. As the carriage was approaching the road near the Calcutta FC ground he noticed a ball game being played by a number of Europeans. Fascinated by the ebb and flow of the game, he pleaded with his mother to stop the carriage so that he could see it for some more time. Whilst watching, the football came towards him and he happily kicked it back into play. This became the first-ever recorded case of an Indian kicking a football.”
Needless to say, Nagendra Prasad was born to stir a revolution. Even when the young boy kicked the ball back to the British soldier, it was an act of the empire "striking" back.
Born into an aristocratic family in 1869, it was unlikely for a person of his social standing to mobilize natives from the lower strata and enkindle their passion for a sport which had hitherto been exclusively 'white'.
He began by promoting football among his friends at Hare School, and later co-founded the Boys’ Club - the first known football club for Indians. His iconoclastic zeal drove him to organize a string of clubs in Kolkata like Wellington, Presidency and Sovabazar, and also play a leading role in the formation of the Indian Football Association in 1892.
Despite Nagendra Prasad's monumental contribution to Indian football, why do we know so little about him? Has he sunk into oblivion?
"We Bengalis say that football is in our blood, but see how forgetful we are. The man who introduced Indians to the sport has been erased from an entire nation’s memory. When I embarked on the project a couple of years ago, except some research scholars, no one from the football fraternity had heard his name. Can you imagine that?" Dhrubo Banerjee said, expressing his discontent over this national amnesia.
"I am trying to find my own roots" - Dhrubo Banerjee
After spending 21 years of his career in Maharashtra, Banerjee marked his return to West Bengal and debut as a Bengali film director with the highly successful “Guptodhoner Sandhane” in 2018. Its sequel “Durgeshgarer Guptodhon” followed a year later and turned out to be a blockbuster. Belonging to the adventure genre, both films represent a quest for rediscovering Bengal’s glorious past through the theme of treasure hunt. Banerjee feels that "Golondaaj" too is an extension of this theme, albeit with a radically different subject.
"I am just trying to tell stories that respect Bengal’s culture, heritage and history because people really need that. In that quest, Nagendra Prasad is an important figure. Today when I see youngsters searching his name on Google and new books being written on him, I feel happy because maybe whatever I am doing in my own little space is connecting with them. "Golondaaj" to me is not just a film; it’s a journey towards reclaiming our lost pride. Even in the film, Nagendra Prasad epitomizes the same zest," Banerjee iterated.
Banerjee claims Golondaaj is not Sarbadhikari's biopic
With such scant information available about Nagendra Prasad, how did the director manage to etch out the character and bring the film to fruition?
"I’ve been thinking of making this film for a long time. I consulted one authentic book on Nagendra Prasad ("Krira Samrat Nagendra Prasad") that has been out of print for decades now. I had to visit the National Library to unearth the book, go through it and get it scanned. Then I went to his grandson (Mayukh Ranjan Sarbadhikari), cross-checked all the references and got more insights from him. It was a tedious task, but you’ve to understand that my intention was not to make a documentary."
"My idea was to depict Nagendra Prasad as a larger-than-life figure from whom everyone could draw inspiration. I realized that a cinematic rendition of his life and times had to be a piece of historical fiction. Hence, it’s not fair to call it a biopic or a docu-feature as I am not here to please historians. I want my film to inspire and entertain the common people," Banerjee explained.
IFA and AIFF have done nothing to preserve his legacy: Banerjee
When Banerjee revealed his plan of making "Golondaaj" to Nagendra Prasad’s grandson, the latter got moist-eyed and said, 'Had you not decided to make this film, nobody would’ve known my grandfather for another hundred years.'
Here a pertinent question arises. Unlike in cricket, where several domestic and international trophies are named after stars of yesteryear, why don’t we have a single league/tournament commemorating the “Father of Indian Football”?
Not one to mince his words, Banerjee held the IFA and the All India Football Federation (AIFF) squarely responsible for the negligence meted out to Nagendra Prasad.
"They (IFA and AIFF) have done nothing to preserve his legacy. The IFA is now thinking of installing his bust at the maidan, but isn’t it too late? We should remember that it was Nagendra Prasad who brought the IFA Shield trophy to India. I also think that the ISL should be named after him," Banerjee suggested.
Banerjee emphasized on the importance of preserving India's heritage
Banerjee also emphasized that for football to have a wider penetration in India, the national team must perform better at the international level.
“The popularity of any sport is driven by international success. How many of us took up chess, shooting and javelin before Vishy Anand, Abhinav Bindra and Neeraj Chopra won big in the global arena? The same can be said of cricket vis-à-vis the 1983 World Cup win. But did you know football was more popular than cricket among the natives in 19th century India?"
Banerjee added that Nagendra Prasad was a sports patron who dedicated his life and wealth to the spread of football. He further added:
"What Nagendra Prasad did when he touched and kicked the ball in 1877 and later led the first Indian team to a tournament win against the British (Sovabazar 2-1 East Surrey Regiment, 1892 Trades Cup final) makes him not just the father of Indian football, but also that of Indian sports. I do hope that "Golondaaj" makes people more inquisitive about this great man and induces them to acknowledge his immense contribution to the nation’s sporting sphere," he opined.
"Both football and film-making foster camaradarie" - Banerjee
As cliché as it may sound, there are no retakes in sports; here, everything happens in real-time. On the flipside, one could argue that cinema offers a greater scope for highlighting issues that are often pushed to the societal periphery. Regardless of these differences, what is intrinsic to both sports and film-making is a spirit of camaraderie.
As captain of the ship, Banerjee is proud of the hard work that his entire team has put in to give shape to his vision.
"In Bengali cinema, the market is smaller, so you’ve to operate using limited resources. To conceive of something as big as this and that too in the pandemic period was an almost impossible task. We shot a part of the film before the pandemic struck and then couldn’t shoot anything for a whole year. To regroup and complete the film, keeping the continuity intact, was really commendable," the director stated.
"It’s akin to a football team. A motley group of people, in charge of various departments like acting, cinematography, music, art design, production, choreography etc worked tirelessly to reach a common goal. People are praising us for our costumes and set designs. The making of a period film entails extensive planning, and I am glad that everyone has executed his/her job to the tee. Otherwise, how would you explain your lead actor’s refusal to quit shooting despite fracturing a toe?" he added with a smile before signing off.
Poll : Do you know who is called the "Father of Indian Football"?