Updated: February 9, 2021 7:05:53 pm
In the village of Pargaon in Beed district of Maharashtra, an 18-year-old is preparing for his Class XII board exams, undeterred that a film in which he plays the lead is travelling through festivals across the world and collecting honours, such as a recent award of recognition at the IndieFest Film Awards, USA.
Sabir Sheikh, who studies humanities at the Modern College of Arts, Science and Commerce in Pune, plays the lead in the hour-long film, Ali: The Blind Boxer, about a boy who puts on gloves and enters the ring to punch out discrimination. Sheikh, too, is visually-impaired, and the film merges reality and fiction to show how a person without eyesight can become a boxer. It is the only film of its kind in India.
“It is widely thought that visually-impaired people can’t participate in boxing. Even in the Paralympics, which recognises boxing on wheelchair for sighted players as a sport, there is no event for visually-impaired boxers. We wondered, ‘Is it really not possible for the blind to learn boxing?’ That is how our journey started,” says Bijoy Banerjee, who has made the film with Kaushik Mondal. The two filmmakers are IT professionals based in Pune.
“We knew we had to have a blind boy playing Ali. If that wasn’t possible, we wouldn’t make the film. The reason we were making the film was because we wanted to prove to ourselves that a blind boy could learn boxing. We wanted to be very honest with ourselves so we looked for the right person to play Ali,” says Mondal.
The duo’s earlier film, Upohar (The Gift), on relationship-versus-materialism dichotomy seen through an urban family, had won the Best Child Actor Award at the 2014 Kolkata International Short Film Festival.
The filmmakers arrived at the Pune Blind School in 2019, where 250 boys live in a hostel in Koregaon Park. They noticed Sheikh the moment he entered the big assembly hall where the auditions were being held. “He has sharp features and looks to be mentally strong, the kind who can challenge any contender. Of course, we still needed to audition because only the looks won’t do in a film,” says Mondal.
Sheikh, who was studying in Class X at the time, adds that he was shocked when he was picked for the role. “They came to me and asked if I’d be interested in learning boxing and working in a film. I had never imagined myself in a movie or as a boxer,” he says. “I looked upon the film as an opportunity to learn. And later, I realised that this trait made me similar to the protagonist Ali, who is keen on educating himself,” he says.
Sheikh, who plays cricket and football with both sighted and visually-impaired friends, found that boxing presented new challenges. “I was taught a number of techniques, from how to stand, one leg in front, to how to punch. I could not understand at first and it showed on my face. The coaches and the directors patiently explained the techniques to me. We experimented and changed styles. At one point, my leg was tied and I had to walk to get the gait right. Another technique was that, when a trainer clapped, I had to punch in that direction,” he says.
There was no training manual to teach boxing for the blind, so the filmmakers made one.
“We had, in our consulting team, national-level boxers and boxing match referees. We had discussions with boxing officials. We consulted with our friends who were doctors. The entire training was done through a gradual process. Sabir would be exposed to a certain level of fighting only if he was prepared to do that. It was a friendly environment through which his training happened,” says Mondal.
Over weekends for four months, Sheikh was trained to stand and move like a boxer by his co-actors, Aakash Awate, an international bodybuilding champion, Tejashre Bhame, a national-level boxer, and Sahil Waghmare, a state-level boxer. Awate plays Ali’s coach, Tejashre Bhame is Ali’s sister and Sahil Waghmare essays the role of his main opponent in the film.
“Boxing involves an understanding of time and space in which the player and the opponent attack and defend. How does a visually-impaired person get this sense? We devised a method and, with a lot of practice, Sabir began to develop the instinct. The film is proof that a blind person can be taught boxing,” says Banerjee.
“I do not remember the time I became blind because I was too young. It is possible that my parents were shocked but nobody treated me as a lesser person,” says Sheikh, the youngest of three brothers in a family of farmers. His parents grow cotton and potatoes and Sheikh, when he is home, wakes up at 5 am to study, do household chores and accompany his parents to the fields.
“We recently planted onions and potatoes. I enjoy when the cotton ripens and I go about picking it. I’ve grown up playing under the giant trees here, so it’s easy for me to do so despite my lack of eyesight,” he says.
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Sheikh, who says that the realistic performances in the film barely required him to act, came out “stronger in mind” and with a firmer attitude to tackle life’s jabs. “I have never looked at blindness as a weakness but as a positive aspect of me. Difficulties come in everybody’s life, whether that person is sighted or blind,” he adds.
For him, the challenge was leaving school after Class X and stepping out into a new and noisy world. For 10 years, he had lived in the cosy confines of a school hostel where all necessities were provided. “Now, I had to learn to talk to new people. If you have to travel by city buses, you need to know bus routes and bus stops. You have to ask strangers. What if the person is a woman and becomes offended if I approached? I learnt gradually because, if you stop out of fear, you will get nowhere,” says Sheikh, who now studies in Modern College, Pune.
He is ready to train as a boxer and teach the sport to others who are visually impaired. “Boxing is a mind game as much as it is a skill. When an opponent strikes, do you fight back or step back? If you are interested, you can be anything,” he says.
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