January 15, 2015

Chhattisgarh Women's incredible basketball team could soon be the subject of a Bollywood film

Sports, some may argue, are just a pastime, a distraction to keep the average person relieved from a life that can be filled with otherwise serious challenges of family, work, politics, and survival. In the big scheme of things, who really cares which way the ball bounced? Who cares about heroes on a basketball court of a cricketing field when there are greater heroes fighting for humanity in the 'real life'?

No, sports may not save humanity, but I believe that sporting stories can definitely help improve humanity a little. In many ways, the basketball court or that cricket field serves as a timely metaphor for us of the stage of life. How you perform, how hard you work, how you overcome adversity, how you fight to win, and how you remain a 'good sport' through the ups and the downs can indeed teach us much about living a fulfilling and successful life. This is why sports remain popular, and why stories about sports continue to inspire us.

This is why Bollywood - another medium of distraction and escapism which can also serve as a teaching metaphor - has often chosen sports as its muse in the past. Films like Lagaan, Chak De! India, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, Mary Kom, Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar, Iqbal, and more have caught the public's imagination in the past through sports like Cricket, Hockey, Athletics, Boxing, Cycling, etc. It seems that now, thanks to the success of an inspirational team from the state of Chhattisgarh, Basketball will be given another shot in Indian cinema.

The central Indian state Chhattisgarh was formed back in November 2000 by by partitioning Chhattisgarhi-speaking southeastern districts of Madhya Pradesh. MP has always featured decent basketball teams, and a small pool of that talent would now form the base of the basketball programmes in the new state. But the efforts of one man - Rajesh Patel - didn't just help jump-start basketball in Chhattisgarh; he made the sport almost synonymous with the state. Working at the coach at the Bhilai Steel Plant and as the Head Coach of all of Chhattisgarh's State women's teams, Patel has led the teams to extraordinary success, dominating the Sub-Junior (U14), Youth (U16), and Junior (U18) national tournaments, and most recently, winning back-to-back championships in India's largest domestic basketball meet - the Senior Nationals - in 2014 and 2015. The girls' in Patel's programmes have overcome underprivileged backgrounds, a patriarchal society, and the the case of 2015 national MVP Poonam Chaturvedi, a brain tumour, all to become India's fiercest women's basketball team and go on to earn a better future for themselves through government jobs (that sponsor basketball) and India's national team.

The Indian Express writer Shivani Naik spoke to Patel after his team's most recent national triumph and divulged that several influential names in the Bollywood world have expressed interest in turning the story of his team into a Chak-De style film for Indian Basketball. According to Naik's, actor-producer Lara Dutta Bhupathi has been a fan of Chhattisgarh basketball and is looking to back a project to oversee the production of this story. Naik's article also connects names such as Vikramaditya Motwane (the brilliant young director of Udaan and Lootera) and Dutta's husband and tennis star Mahesh Bhupathi to those interested in the making of this film.

“Yes, Lara Dutta had read about the academy [in Bhilai] and wanted to make a movie on the state women’s team," Patel was quoted as saying, "We’ve had detailed discussions and two of their team members flew down to Bhilai last September and spoke to the girls who are very excited. They promised that it would not be a masala film."

Dutta has a history as a basketball fan; she was famously given an all-access trip to the Los Angeles Lakers back in 2008, and it's great to hear that she's turning her interest in the sport to focus the attention on hoops back in India.

This is of course not the first flirtation of Bollywood and Basketball. Several years ago, I wrote about pivotal scenes from three famous Bollywood movies that included the game, including Kajol and Shah Rukh Khan playing in the most cringe-worthy full-court one-on-one flirtatious game of All Time in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. But except for a few moments of hoops action, these films focused on entirely different issues. Last year, "Vallinam", a Tamil movie based on basketball was released to moderate/low fanfare. And I have no clue what has happened with the promise of '4 PM on the court'. If this project sees the light of the day, it would be the first re-telling of a true basketball story in India and - judging by the names attached to it - by far the best one.

The story will probably focus on Bhilai and how Patel's academy has turned unknown youngsters into basketball wonders. The Bhilai Steel Plant is the financial powerhouse behind providing infrastructure and manpower for Chhattisgarhi basketball, including four well-maintained outdoor courts. The Bhilai Engineering Corporation sponsor the state’s ‘Basketball Hostel’. At this hostel, around 20 girls and 10 boys, usually from poor families, are housed all year long, where they eat, pray, and love basketball, practicing 10 hours each day, morning and evening, on repeat.

At the helm of this project is the coach, Rajesh Patel. Patel is Honorary Secretary of the Chhattisgarh Basketball Association, the Deputy Manager (Sports) at Bhilai Steel Plant, and has invested over 30 years into the game. He has built a well-planned system, where his scouts bring young players (around age 10-11) from deprived conditions and offer them a chance to make a living through basketball. “These are really poor kids from all around the state of Chhattisgarh,” Patel told me in an interview several years ago, “Some are from tribal families. Some can't even afford to buy a pair of slippers for their feet. Some have father’s who drive auto-rickshaws, or sell paan. We offer them the opportunity that if they are successful in basketball, they will be able to land a government job. By the time they leave, I want them to earn for themselves and be able to stand on their own two feet.”

And they don’t just stand, they stand tall. In his several decades in coaching, hundreds of players that have trained under Patel have received government jobs under the sports quota. A few dozen that haves trained under him have represented the Indian Sr. National team. He has worked with close to eight thousand young players in the state. For his contributions to grassroots basketball in India, Patel was felicitated at the FICCI sports summit in 2010.

In the interview with Naik this week, Patel said of the girls in this team, “The kind of families they come from, even their next meal is not assured, forget about completing their education. I think girls should do more than just be married off at 18 years. My girls play aggressive ball and are posted as ticket collectors at big stations. They go to work from 7 am to 5 pm, and come back and train. Nothing makes me more proud than seeing them in their blazers going about their work professionally. On the court, they are expected to win of course."

If someone like Motwane - whose movies and scripts I have personally admired a lot - the project will surely have a better chance at some critical success. Apart from the Head Coach himself, the central character of this tale may well be the literal centerpiece of the team, Poonam Chaturvedi. At 6-foot-8, 19-year-old Chaturvedi is now Chattisgarh's best player, an unstoppable star who shined bright in the nationals and scored 48 points in the final en route to her MVP campaign. What makes her story more intriguing though is that she was diagnosed with a brain tumour last year, and despite the painful recovery, has managed to lead her team to back-to-back national championships. Other stars in the team like Sharanjeet Kaur, Seema Singh, Akansha Singh, Anju Lakra, Bharti Netam, M. Pushpa, Sangeetha Kaur, and more have played a crucial role in the last decade of Chhattisgarh's success and performed successfully for India at the international stage.

The only trouble, of course, would be find tall actresses to fill these shoes, especially the ones belonging to the 6-foot-8 Chaturvedi!

They might be a distraction or an escape, but sports and films do indeed bring us the inspiration to make the most of our lives. And if it's done right, a Bollywood film on the dominating girls of Chhattisgarh could make for an engaging and encouraging story. And of course, any mainstream attention to basketball is bound to inspire young players to take up this blog's favourite sport!

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