Mumbai: Pakistan’s hockey star Sohail Abbas recently described the atmosphere during a contest against India as “jung ka mahaul” (like a war). Sanjay Puran Singh Chauhan, who once used to be a professional fighter, disagrees.
Game plan: A still from Lahore, in which Farooq Shaikh plays the role of S.K. Rao--coach of the Indian team. The film releases on 13 March.
Film-maker Chauhan’s maiden directorial venture Lahore, to release on 19 March, uses kick-boxing and a series between India and Pakistan to deliver a simple message: Sport is not war.
Chauhan, a gentle, well-mannered man who makes it difficult to believe he once had the aggression to be a martial arts exponent or even a film director, chose the subject because he felt close to it, having been part of teams that have participated against Pakistan. He says real life characters and incidents have inspired the story, though it is not wholly based on any one individual or situation.
Lahore comes in the wake of recent controversies when cricketers from Pakistan were not picked by any of the Indian Premier League teams. The film will release after India has played Pakistan in the hockey World Cup in Delhi. The two teams face-off in a league game on 28 February, which is the reason for Abbas’ comment in a newspaper interview.
Listen to filmmaker Sanjay Puran Singh Chauhan talk about his foray into directing and the impetus behind his film Lahore. Download here
Chauhan says he intended to steer clear of the clichéd track of jingoism and Pakistan-bashing, a la 2001 film Gadar: Ek Prem Katha, in which a raging Tara Singh (Sunny Deol) literally battles the entire country to bring his wife back home from Pakistan. Lahore’s rather surprising end would gel well in the current scenario when both India and Pakistan are getting together for foreign secretary-level talks on 25 February.
Chauhan recalls his childhood when friends celebrated after India beat Pakistan in the 1992 cricket World Cup, which to them was as good as India winning the title (Pakistan won the World Cup). That experience fuelled his desire to one day explore sporting relations between the two nations on celluloid.
“There have been occasions during foreign tours when the organizers have asked us if we minded staying in the same hotel as the Pakistanis,” says Chauhan, pointing to the misconception that sportsmen from the two countries did not get along.
“My intention of making this film is twofold. Since I was familiar with kick-boxing, I thought this seemingly brutal sport would provide the ideal contrast to spread the message of harmony. I also want to say that this is just sport, it’s not so important that everything else should take a back seat. My stress in the film has been on sportsmanship, over feelings of revenge.”
Chauhan also uses the film to highlight some other features that have traditionally dogged lesser known sports in India—a clueless minister leading a sport federation, political dealings in team selections, favouritism and the subtle irony of an overweight former player performing the functions of a technical director. “The characters (in the film) are people I have met in life,” says Chauhan, who adds he was a martial exponent for over 10 years during which he represented the country on several occasions.
Origins of the sport can be found in Thailand and it’s the country’s national sport. The Indian Olympic Association (IOA) recognizes the sport of Muay Thai, which is quite similar to kick-boxing. The president of Muay Thai India, M.H. Abid, says this is the purer form and kick-boxing is “merely an amalgamation of various forms of martial arts”. The sport of kick-boxing, though, lacks a cohesive administrative body in India, as IOA does not recognize it. There are several local bodies affiliated to different global associations, which organize their own tournaments.
One of them is the Mumbai-based Indian Kick Boxing Association, which claims to be the only group recognized by the World Profi Kick Boxing Federation and the Asian Kick Boxing Federation. This group is organizing an Asian Open Championship on 20-21 February in Pune. Ziauddin Khatib, who is president of the Indian Kick Boxing Association, says he has worked with several actors and films as a trainer and consultant. About 40,000 people are registered with his organization, he adds. Another example is the Orissa-based Indian Association of Kickboxing Organization, which is affiliated to the World Association of Kickboxing Organization.
Rigorous drill: Lahore’s lead actor Aanaahad was sent to China for six months to train for his role.
Lahore follows on the lines of Striker, which was released on 5 February and used carrom as a base to tell a story of communalism and ghetto culture.
There are no major stars in Lahore either—Farooq Shaikh and Sushant Singh are the best-known actors in the ensemble—which “has helped because we could mould them the way we wanted”, says Chauhan. Lead actor Aanaahad was sent to China for six months to train for the role. That was just a part of his three-year intensive involvement with the film. He says the “action is real. Unlike other films where sound plays a part, in this movie, there was actual contact during fight scenes. I would return from shooting and check my bruises,” says Aanaahad, who describes Lahore as a “sensation that can not be described, like sugar”.
Edmond Lau from China and Mark Horton from the Netherlands helped train the actors while Rob Miller (Chak De! India) acted as sports consultant.
Many more specialists behind the camera made up the absence of shining lights in front of it. Action choreographer Tony Leung Siu Hung, production designer Kesto Monal and background music by Wayne Sharpe brought alive the story of two brothers from Rajasthan, a cricketer and a kick-boxer, whose lives take a dramatic turn after a kick-boxing championship between India and Pakistan. The film, which won a jury award at the 42nd World Fest (Houston), and one for the most aspiring film-maker at International Filmmaker Fest (UK) among others, has been shot on locations in Pakistan, Malaysia and Jaipur among others.
First-time producers Vivek Khatkar and J.S. Rana wanted a foothold in the industry and decided to push Chauhan’s project, a risk considering Chauhan had never even assisted on a film before or studied cinema. Khatkar said before they knew it, their “strong story” had taken wings and turned into an “expensive” film. Warner Brothers Entertainment Inc. will distribute Lahore, made on a budget of at least Rs8 crore, according to insiders. About 500 prints will be released for the domestic market.
The film is named Lahore because the climax is set there—“like Bodhgaya is famous because of Siddharth’s enlightenment, the protagonists’ transformation happens in Lahore. Also, I visualized the climax first, my story starts from there,” says Chauhan, who came to Mumbai from Gurgaon in 2005 to start the quintessential Bollywood struggler’s journey.
The producers realize they are dealing with a sensitive issue, particularly after recent troubles faced by My Name is Khan. Khatkar says, “We are aware things can go horribly wrong. But once the film is out, people will realize that this film places us among leading film-makers in the country.”