Virender Singh | Fighting to be heard5 min read . Updated: 22 Jan 2014, 09:14 PM IST
Wrestler Virender Singh won gold at the 2013 Deaflympics. A documentary makes a compelling case for him to be allowed to compete with able-bodied athletes
In India, a country with a sporting tradition that is neither particularly varied nor particularly glorious, wrestling stands out, its popularity still evident in village dangals, tough bouts between strongmen of various sizes in the mud, surrounded by hundreds, even thousands, of fans eager to festoon winners with coins and soiled, crumpled rupee notes. S. Muzumdar, in his 1942 classic Strong Men Over the Years, traces the contemporary history of Indian wrestling to 1892, when the young Karim Bakhsh defeated the English champion Tom Cannon.
It was the first international encounter for an Indian pehelwan. Soon, pehelwans were all the rage, holding all-conquering exhibitions in London and Paris. The American writer Tania James, inspired by Muzumdar’s book, opens her most recent story collection, Aerogrammes, with a plangent imagining of the real-life pehelwan, the Great Gama (his real name, Ghulam Muhammad), marooned in England for just such an exhibition. “They were warned about English food," James writes in Lion And Panther in London, as the Great Gama and his brother prepared to defeat taller, heavier English opponents, “mushy potatoes, dense pies, gloomy puddings—the sort of fare that would render them leaden in body and mind."
The likes of Bakhsh, or Gulam (as he was known), who embarrassed a widely feted Turkish opponent in Paris in 1900 at the Exposition Universelle, or the Great Gama, learned their trade in no-frills contests with local heavyweights. Little has changed in over a century.
In the hour-long documentary Goonga Pehelwan, made last year by Mit Jani, Prateek Gupta and Vivek Chaudhary, finance students still in their early 20s, we follow the deaf wrestler Virender Singh into the dirt and chaos of these village spectacles. His deafness presents no significant obstacle in the dangals but despite his prowess, and his medals at the Deaflympics, he has yet to represent India in an international competition for able-bodied athletes. As the documentary shows, he deserves a chance to qualify for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to have the opportunity to represent his country alongside his famous training partner Sushil Kumar, who won silver in the 2012 Olympics in London.
That Singh still fights in dangals, to make money denied to him through the awards common among similarly successful, able-bodied athletes, is a travesty. To see his compact physique covered in mud and dust as he takes on a larger, heftier opponent is to understand the strain he puts himself through each time he participates in a bout, how it cannot be good for a professional athlete who needs time to train and rest if he is to compete at his best on the mat rather than in the dirt.
It is also to see just why Singh is held in so much respect by the likes of Kumar. Jani writes in an email about witnessing Singh’s prowess, travelling to dangals through Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Rajasthan. “Out of all the dangals that we watched, he was defeated only once and that too because of an error by the referee. He weighs 74 kilos but in these dangals he fights wrestlers weighing 100 kilos upwards and defeats them through sheer guile and strength."
Much of the colour and fun, in what is a competent if not particularly stylish film, is provided by the lively atmosphere of the dangals. There are drummers, dancing camels, large, enthusiastic crowds and bouts that continue until the sun goes down. It is a sharp contrast to the drab but much more serious business of training at the Chhatrasal Stadium in Model Town in north Delhi, a centre for Indian wrestlers.
Singh moved to Delhi as a small boy from Baprola, a village near the border between Delhi and Haryana—a recalcitrant inductee into the harsh discipline of the wrestler’s life, he quickly grew into a champion. His talent and intelligence on the mat is unquestioned, as is his ability to compete with wrestlers who can hear. What holds Singh back is his inability to hear the whistle by which referees control bouts. It is a problem that is simply remedied, as an internationally qualified Indian referee points out in Goonga Pehelwan, by instructing referees to give Singh tactile and visual clues, tapping his shoulder for instance, or with decisive hand gestures.
Promises have been made to Singh before about giving referees the necessary instructions to enable him to compete in national qualifying tournaments for the Olympics. Promises have been made to reward him for the five medals he has won in five international competitions for deaf athletes. His gold medal in the 2013 Deaflympics in Sofia, Bulgaria, was India’s only medal in the games. But the promises, including those made by Haryana chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda, have not been honoured.
In interviews on phone and email, Jani, Gupta and Chaudhary speak of expecting to meet an athlete resentful of the injustices meted out to him, an athlete angry with sports bureaucrats who are proof that there are none so deaf as those who will not hear. “But when we met Virender for the first time," Gupta says, “our preconceptions about him changed completely. He was very jolly and happy with his life." In their documentary, Singh comes across as a charismatic figure, his signing animated and his face quick to crease into a smile. But he is also aware that for a wrestler with his skills, he has been treated shoddily. He speaks of the room he shares with more than a dozen other wrestlers while his friend Kumar enjoys far cleaner, better-smelling accommodation and home-cooked food.
Chaudhary says that helping Singh achieve his Olympic ambitions has become a mission for the three men. They hope that their documentary, despite the difficulties of finding an audience outside the festival circuit, will be seen by people who might help. Gupta says the Wrestling Federation of India has promised again to provide a referee who can give Singh tactile and visual signals to give him the opportunity to qualify for the Olympics. The film-makers intend to get that promise in writing.
Jani says the awareness created by the film is having an impact. Already, software company Wipro Ltd has planned fund-raising activities. “India’s blade runner, Major D.P. Singh, is planning a fund-raising run across a number of Indian cities for Virender," writes Jani. “There has been support from Poonam Natarajan, the chairperson of the National Trust (for people with various mental and physical disabilities), and Rahul Mehra, the sports advocate and a founder member of the Aam Aadmi Party, is willing to file a PIL (public interest litigation) in the Supreme Court to fight for the rights of disabled athletes. So things are moving."
Screenings of Goonga Pehelwan have been organized in Delhi and Ahmedabad and more are planned in Mumbai. The film will also be screened at the ViBGYOR Film Festival in Thrissur, Kerala, in February. It’s a story that needs to be told, another example of how, as a system, we continue to fail people of talent and merit. But don’t expect Virender Singh to be feeling sorry for himself. He’s busy pinning another 100kg giant to the ground and turning to an adoring crowd in grit-caked triumph.