Bollywood has always been fascinated by India’s sports stars, especially the cricket stars who claim the lion’s share of fame and adulation in the country. Which is why the Indian film industry has always turned to sports-based films as the genre most certainly guarantees a hit at the box office. For many, these films are the dream project and for some, it is a medium to pay tribute to their favorite sports star; but for the audience, it is a moment of inspiration that also allows them to relive the victory of their favorite sports person.
This year there were as many as five sports-based films – Azhar, M S Dhoni – The Untold Story, Budhia Singh – Born to Run, Sultan and Dangal, which dominated the box office throughout the year and were hugely appreciated by the masses. In fact, biopics of Pullela Gopichand, Saina Nehwal, Mariyappan Thangavelu, Sachin Tendulkar, Dhyan Chand and Murlikant Petkar are already in the making.
While these stories deserved being celebrated, there several other unsung achievers who have made India proud at the global level.
With Bollywood undergoing a biopic boom of sorts, its time the incredibly inspiring stories of these 8 Indian sports heroes graced the silver screen.
1. P T Usha
Flying Rani, Payyoli Express, Golden Girl… the epithets are as numerous as the 102 international medals and 1,000-plus awards she has won at national and state-level meets. But Pilavullakandi Thekkeparambil Usha is not just a winner in the world of athletics. This sporting legend has triumphed in life’s race, overcoming humble beginnings, financial difficulties, inadequate facilities and diseases to become one of the greatest athletes to have represented India on the tracks in the Olympics.
At the age of 16, she became the youngest Indian sprinter to compete in the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Her fourth position in 400 meters hurdles in 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, is by far the closest to an Olympic medal on the tracks by an Indian female athlete! This is exactly why P T Usha’s inspiring story deserves to be told!
2. Balbir Singh Sr
As a triple Olympic gold winner in hockey (1948, 1952 and 1956), independent India’s first flag-bearer at the Olympics, an astonishing goal-count and today at 93 India’s oldest living Olympian, Balbir Singh Sr’s achievements should have been acknowledged and celebrated long ago. Sadly, this unheralded hero of Indian hockey’s golden era remains unknown to most Indians.
It is said that Balbir Sr’s unorthodox upright posture when he entered the striking circle flummoxed many a rival goalkeeper because it gave no clue to which side of the goal he would place it. That’s how he ended being top goal-scorer for independent India in successive Olympics – at London, Helsinki and Melbourne. With his journey coinciding crucially with the travails of Partition, Balbir Sr’s inspiring story is made for the silver screen.
3. Kapil Dev
The Indian cricket team, in 1983, was an underdog team that was totally not in the list of teams expected to reach the semifinals, let alone become world champions. India had suffered heavy defeats against Australia and West Indies. Faced with a must-win game against Zimbabwe, India had slipped to a precarious 17/5. Another defeat there could have been the end of India’s hopes in the tournament.
But then Kapil Dev unleashed his raw power, clobbering 16 fours and 6 sixes on his way to unbeaten 138-ball 175. From then onwards, it was history in the making. Leading from the front, the Haryana Hurricane took to its most memorable victory when the team upset the mighty West Indies in the final to lift the 1983 World Cup.One of India’s greatest cricket players, Dev also took 434 wickets from 131 Tests and scored 5248 runs. His journey, from his humble beginnings in Haryana to leading India to its first world cup win, is something we would love seeing on the silver screen.
4. Karnam Malleswari
In the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Karnam Malleswari lifted the drooping spirits of not just the Indian contingent there but also those of everyone back home. Few in her sleepy village of Voosavanipeta in Andhra Pradesh or anywhere else in India for that matter would have dreamt of weightlifter Karnam Malleswari being India’s lone medallist in the 2000 Sydney Olympics – bronze in the 69kg category, with an effort of 110kg in snatch and 130kg in clean and jerk (240kg). The ‘Iron Lady’, as she was referred to then, later regretted her decision to go for 137.5kg in her third attempt in clean jerk. But for that wrong lift, she might have won gold. T
hat does not detract, however, from a stunning achievement, which saw her become the first woman from India to win an Olympic medal. To those following her career, Malleswari’s bronze was not a major surprise, given her grit and the fact that she had won two gold and two silver medals in the World championships and a few gold medals at the Asian level. Hers is a story of triumphing against the odds, a rustic Indian girl unaware of the quality of equipment needed or the level of competition she would face when she began her career at 12 in a thatched shed in her village
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5. Khashaba Dadasaheb Jadhav
The year was 1948, a year after Independence. At Raja Ram College, Kolhapur, a short, scrawny student from a nearby village walked up to the sports teacher and said he wanted to compete in wrestling at the annual sports meet. One look at his physique and the teacher snorted, saying he could not allow a weak player on the team. The young man, 23 years old, approached the college principal, who gave him another chance. That was just the opportunity Khashaba Dadasaheb Jadhav needed to prove naysayers wrong.
The 27-year-old went on to create history, wrestled his way to the bronze medal in the freestyle (bantamweight, 57kg) category at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. India rejoiced as the ‘Pocket Dynamo’, as Jadhav was called became the first Indian to win an Olympic medal (bronze) in an individual sport. A story that has faded from our sporting consciousness, except in the taleems (wrestling centres) of Kolhapur, Jadhav’s journey must be recognised and respected by the country he brought glory too.
6. Shankar Laxman
The double Olympic gold medallist Shankar Laxman, who died uncared and unsung at the age of 73, was one of the greatest hockey players of all time at a time when the sport had a status close to religion in India. The first goalkeeper to become captain of an international hockey team, he was the only one to have played in three successive Olympic finals. Shankar Laxman was also the man who stood between gold for India and brutal Pakistan onslaughts in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics hockey final. In fact, his opponents called him the Rock of Gibraltar!
Modest to a fault, Laxman was the only player from the victorious team chosen to receive India’s highest sports honour, the the coveted Arjuna award. In 1966 he captained India in the Asian Games in Bangkok and again beat Pakistan for the gold medal. In 1967 he was presented with the prestigious Padma Shri award by the president of India for his sporting achievements. Forgotten by the hockey authorities and aficionados alike, Laxman lived in poverty and passed away in 2006 after suffering years of agony due to gangrene. Its time Indians were reminded about the great achievements of this unsung sporting hero.
7. Devendra Jhajharia
Devendra Jhajharia became India’s second gold medal winner at the Rio Paralympics after he broke his own world record with a throw of 63.7m in the men’s F46 Javelin Throw. It was a historic moment for the country as Devendra became the first Indian to win two individual Gold medals at the Paralympics/Olympics – the one-armed thrower had won the gold medal at the Athens Games in 2004.
Jhajharia, who already has a long list of achievements to his name, was born into a low-income family of Churu district in Rajasthan. At the age of eight, he lost his left hand after accidentally touching an electric wire while trying to climb a tree. His success as a javelin thrower – made tougher against the backdrop of financial disabilities – is testament to his willpower and physical prowess. India’s flag-bearer at the 2016 paralympics, Jhajharia was awarded the Arjuna award in 2004 and the Padma Shri in 2012, becoming the first Paralympian to receive the honour. The story of how he overcame huge odds to emerge a winner is deeply inspiring and deserves to be made into a biopic.
8. Dipa Karmakar
Dipa Karmakar missed a bronze medal by a whisker to finish fourth in the women’s vault finals in the Rio Games but still created history by producing the best-ever performance by an Indian gymnast in the Olympics history. She also executed one of the most dangerous feats in gymnastics, the Produnova vault. Considered one of the riskiest routines in the sport, often referred to as the ‘vault of death’, the move has been performed successfully by only five people in the world, including Karmakar.
A girl who won a billion hearts for her tireless efforts, Karmakar had spent years preparing for this day. She began her training in a ramshackle gym at the age of six, unfazed by the flat feet she was born with as she used makeshift equipment made from discarded scooter parts and crash mats to train. In the years leading up to her stellar performance in Rio, Karmakar racked up a total of 77 medals in various domestic and international competitions, including a bronze at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Scotland. India’s newest sporting legend, Karmakar’s inspiring story would make a fascinating film on the big screen.