Lulkidihi, a green, hilly hamlet in the Sundergarh district of Orissa, and home to 27-year-old Binita Toppo, is famous for a weekly hockey ritual called the khasi tournament. In the local dialect, khasi means goat, so the team that wins gets a goat (the runner-up has to make do with a kukura or hen).

Khan says it was tough to play on Astro-Turf

The national team that returned from a camp in Italy two weeks ago to prepare for the Asia Cup has three other players from this tribal belt, bordering Orissa and Jharkhand—Poonam Toppo, Binita Xess and Pushpa Pradhan. Here, a child’s first toy is a hockey stick, a groom is judged by the number of goals he has scored, and weddings are solemnized on hockey fields.

Ironically, the casting team of Yash Raj Films’ Chak De India— the Shah Rukh Khan flick about a coach who resurrects a moribund Indian women’s hockey team—did not travel to this hockey heartland. But thanks to its efforts (the cast of 16 girls that comprise the fictional team is from all parts of the country, including Indore, Jabalpur, Dehradun, Bangalore and Shillong), women’s hockey is now prominently covered in the national news, sparking off a debate of sorts.

The Indian Women’s Hockey Federation (IWHF), which helped film director Shimit Amin and producer Aditya Chopra by giving unlimited access to hockey camps across the country, initially had a knee-jerk reaction to the film’s publicity. It said the film poorly depicts women’s hockey “by making it a zero-to-hero story when the girls are actually doing well in the game". But, later, IWHF secretary Amrit Bose clarified: “The film would boost the morale of the girls and spread awareness among the public about women’s hockey. We expect a lot of sponsorship to come our way as an after-effect of the film." At the time Bose spoke to Lounge from the New Delhi office of IWHF, the Indian team was at a practice camp in Lucknow, preparing for the Asia Cup, and Dutchman Herman Kruis had just been appointed coach of the team for two weeks. “The girls watched the film on 11 August in Lucknow," Bose said.

The germ of Chak De India was a small news item about the Indian team’s success in an international tournament—the film’s writer Jaideep Sahni came across it a few years ago. “It got me thinking. Considering there wasn’t much infrastructure available for women’s hockey (teams) in small towns, the girls were from nooks and corners of the country. It was a small item on the sports page," Sahni recalls. Yash Raj’s creative head Chopra grabbed Sahni’s script two years ago and gave the task of directing it to Amin, who had just joined Yash Raj’s panel of directors.

After a casting exercise that lasted six months, when Amin and his assistants auditioned the women, a three-month camp commenced in Mumbai. The girls were coached by Mir Ranjan Negi, a former goalkeeper of the Indian team and coach of the women’s team that bagged the gold in the 2002 Commonwealth Games. The lead character of Kabir Khan, played by Shah Rukh Khan, is based on Negi’s real life fate as a goalie who was dropped from the national team after he conceded seven goals against Pakistan in the 1982 Asian Games, but who later redeemed his pride by taking the women’s team to its first significant victory in the international arena. “We chose girls who were athletic and interested in hockey. Later, they were taught acting and how to play the game on a synthetic turf. Although Chak De India is an out-and-out mainstream Bollywood film, we had to achieve a semblance of reality. Aditya Chopra emphasized that from the beginning," says Amin.

So what does the sure-fire thriller reiterate or reveal about women’s hockey? For the director, the cross-country trip was an eye-opener: “I came face-to-face with a lot of truths. Very few women in India were playing sports, and almost every ground I came across was occupied by men playing cricket. Hockey was nowhere." It’s a reality IWHF is reluctant to acknowledge because it judges the scenario by comparing it with how things were five years earlier, when the women’s team was a poor second cousin to the men’s squad.

According to Jyoti Sunita Kullu, now out of the team due to personal reasons, a major handicap to the team’s growth is the lack of enough domestic tournaments for women: “The girls are not competing enough among themselves. Also, a lot of camps take place on grass grounds, while most international tournaments are on synthetic AstroTurf. But things are looking up a lot now."

An interesting, albeit limited, boost to women’s hockey in India is the emergence of rink hockey prevalent largely in Mumbai—a fast-paced and physically gruelling 30-minute version of the game played in an artificial rink. In April 2007, KCT Events, a Mumbai-based sports management company, hosted the Carmel Rink Hockey Tournament in which several women’s teams, such as Indian Oil and Indian Railways, participated. “We’ve managed to convince our sponsors to make it an annual tournament," says Dereyk Talker of KCT Events.

India’s Mamta Kharab moves past an English player at the 2006 World Cup

The passion of the Sundergarh girls—there are many Binitas and Jyotis in the making here—is a good pointer to the future of the game. For them, it is an aspirational sport that helps them earn a living. The Panposh Hockey Academy in Rourkela, Orissa, founded by the Sports Authority of India— where over 100 hockey players (about 40 of them women) are currently being trained—got a state-of-the-art AstroTurf last year.

Those who aspire to join this institute are still using time-tested equipment: sticks made of bamboo shoots, their front curve created by slow heating over a fire; and balls made of wood apples wrapped in layers of thick cloth. Kapilas Bhuyan, a Bhubaneswar-based film-maker, who is working on a documentary on the Sundergarh women titled Dribbling from the Past to the Future, says: “Over 25,000 girls from Sundergarh work as domestic help in New Delhi. The rate of migration of women from this district is very high. Most of the players’ families are poor and customs such as witch-hunts are rampant in the area. So, their success stories are phenomenal."

Going by the growing number of recruits from here, they have obviously convinced the national selectors that the real drivers of women’s hockey are in our moffusil towns and villages. A fact that Chak De India jingoistically affirms.