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Cut above the rest: Meet Vinesh Phogat, the first female Indian wrestler to win gold at Asian Games

A Cut Above the Rest: She had never wanted to be an also-ran or bask in the reflected glory of her successful older cousins. Instead, Vinesh Phogat wanted to chart her own course to success on the wrestling mat.

Written by Vinay Siwach , Gaurav Bhatt | New Delhi |
Updated: September 9, 2018 11:27:23 am
Vinesh Phogat who won Gold in Wrestling in Asian Games in 2018, at her Village in Haryana. (Express Photo by Praveen Khanna)

Asia is not enough, even if it is the first ever gold won by any Indian woman wrestler. At least, not enough for Mahavir Singh Phogat to get up from his charpoy to go and receive his niece at the international airport in the capital, roughly 120 km from where he is, in the village of Balali in Haryana’s Charkhi Dadri district. “I’ll go the day it’s an Olympic gold.” His reaction to Vinesh Phogat bringing home a slice of the yellow metal might seem less than enthusiastic, but Mahavir would have you know that it’s not due to any lack of happiness on his part but because it wasn’t unexpected at all. As if to prove his point, he gestures at a member of the hookah baithak to bring sweets and tea for the visitors even before he has opened his mouth to say a word.

But, if the patriarch of the Phogat wrestling clan comes across as a man of few words, it’s because he doesn’t need to spell things out. When he does, it makes Aamir Khan’s portrayal of him in Nitesh Tiwari’s hit film Dangal (2016) pale in comparison. Like when he rules out a warm welcome at the airport for a victory that he expected. Or when he looks at us and indicates that one of us has hair not short enough. What was that? Did he just gesture to someone to go and fetch the barber, like that scene in the film that bordered on parental abuse? No, it’s all in the mind. Besides, this is a different story, although it shares some of the key characters.

Vinesh Phogat Vinesh Phogat with her Mother Premlata after won Gold in Wrestling in Asian Games in 2018, at her Village in Haryana. (Express Photo by Praveen Khanna)

“Main bhi Olympic medal la sakta tha (I could have won an Olympic medal, too),” declares Harvinder, the reluctant jester of another baithak in another courtyard, just 100 yards of cobbled street away from Mahavir’s, but a world apart in every other sense. It’s the world of Premlata Phogat, Mahavir’s sister-in-law, and her three children — Harvinder, Priyanka, and, of course, Vinesh, the youngest at 24, and gold medal-winner at the just-concluded Asian Games in Jakarta, Indonesia. This is a world that has made its peace with tragedy and is now busy dishing out carefree laughter and endless cups of chai. Vinesh has had two cups already, and two laddoos, too; she asks for more and gets scolded.

Taken out of context, it might seem Dickensian — one only needs to remember that Vinesh is no Oliver — the twist in this tale is that she’s the star. She responds with, “Agar chai nahi pila rahi toh khaana kya khilayegi (If you aren’t giving me tea to drink, what will you give me to eat)?” Harvinder jumps in: “Garam paani hi toh hai, bahar desh mein 20 baar pee jaate hain log chai (It’s just warm water. People drink tea at least 20 times abroad).”

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The freewheeling conversation inevitably leads to Dangal, and it is in these moments that Harvinder — the first child of the Phogat clan and the only member of this sub-nuclear family to make it to the film — most resembles his celluloid counterpart, the braggart narrator Omkar who would be put in his place by his sisters. “Main toh pit hi raha hoon poori picture me (I am getting battered throughout the film),” Harvinder says with a laugh. “It’s all about being in the right place at the right time. Otherwise, it could have easily been me winning all the medals.” With a quick glance at sister Priyanka, Vinesh quips: “Easier said than done. Jab mat pe pa phoolenge tab pata chalega (When your feet swell on the mat, you’ll get to know).”

Vinesh Phogat with her Brother Harvinder after winning gold in Wrestling at Asian Games in 2018. (Express Photo by Praveen Khanna)

“Give him five years,” his mother comes to his defence, before Harvinder interjects: “One! One year of training, and I’ll be ready to take on India’s best. My body may be 30 but I still have that fire.” “Tere haunsle ko salaam, par vehem ki koi dawa na hoti (I salute your courage, but there’s no cure for misconceptions),” Vinesh ends the exchange with a punchline that sets off cackles.

Harvinder’s misplaced swagger and his sisters’ gentle ribbing aside, whether Harvinder had it in him to excel on the mat is a big what-if. In a role reversal of sorts, Mahavir’s single-minded resolve meant his nephew was destined to play the prominent, if only supporting, role in his Tauji’s scheme of things — he was to be the assistant-cum-sparring partner for his cousins and sisters. Premlata, however, says that her son never had a realistic shot at it. On a fateful October night in 2003, Premlata’s husband Rajpal was shot dead on the doorstep of their house by a mentally unstable relative. “How do you react to something like that? I had no idea what to do but I knew that things would become difficult for the family,” she says.

Like his elder brother Mahavir, Rajpal, too, had ignored naysayers in the village and pledged his daughters to wrestling, shielding them from domestic chores and urging them to take the fight to the bullies in school. “Hosh sambhalne ke saath sabko yahi (wrestling) karte dekha tha (I have always seen everyone in the family wrestle),” says Vinesh. His death thus robbed both Mahavir and Premlata of a partner. And then came suggestions from the clan for Premlata to marry Mahavir. That she was the younger sister of Mahavir’s wife Daya lent further traction to the idea. Premlata refused, and declared her intentions to stay alone. “I was stubborn, but it became very difficult with Rajpal gone. The villagers would try to pressure me to stop training at least Vinesh, my youngest. Harvinder was a smart child but he had to shoulder the family’s responsibility. His father was the only earning member. Harvinder began handling the finances and helping out with household chores,” says Premlata.

A year later, in 2004, Premlata was diagnosed with cancer. While she travelled the 75 km to Rohtak alone for chemotherapy, the twin tragedies meant Priyanka and Vinesh, who weren’t even in their teens, had to grow up earlier than their peers, and juggle training, academics and chores. “I was young, but I knew that my mother was troubled. She would try to hide her pain and cry when she thought nobody was around. I did the same. We are emotional people, but there was never a feeling of becharapan. Her sacrifices were for us and I realised then that all I could do to repay that was to stay on my path and do my best,” says Vinesh.

Premlata admits that while Priyanka — silver-medallist at the 2016 Asian Wrestling Championships — is as talented and disciplined, she is not as driven as her younger sister. “Sometimes, during a bout, Priyanka can get distracted. But Vinesh remains on track,” says Premlata. “Even when they were young, Vinesh was always focussed. She was the one who would prepare food for everyone, handle the farm when I was not at home. She would get good grades and put in regular hours on the mat.”

Mahavir, too, rates Vinesh above all his wards. “Vinesh has left them behind. Why didn’t Geeta win this medal? One who works hard moves forward. Even when I trained Vinesh, she would never quit or slack off,” says Mahavir, and, after a long pause, adds, “Jo maine mehnat karwaayi, uska ye aadha bhi kare toh Olympic gold pakka hai (The way I have made her work, if she keeps at even half of it, an Olympic gold is certain)!”

For Vinesh, the on-screen “haanikaarak bapu” can never match up to how strict her Tauji was. “I wanted to check how realistic the film was and I went, ‘Sure, cool, we lived through all of that.’ But how they showed Tauji wasn’t even five per cent of the real deal,” she says with a smile. “Wrestling to me at that age was Tauji ka danda. You couldn’t die, couldn’t live, couldn’t run away. I would tell my mother, ‘I won’t go from tomorrow. I’m good at studies and will make my name that way.’ But she knew how to coax me, so she would say ‘Ja mera beta, choorma khilaungi tanne (Go, my dear, I will make choorma for you).’”

India's Vinesh Phogat (blue) in action against Japan's Yuki Irie during the final bout of women's freestyle 50 kg wrestling event, at the Asian Games 2018, in Jakarta Vinesh Phogat won gold in 50kg freestyle wrestling.

It’s the “drama” in the film that irks Vinesh — be it the swift progression of the wrestlers or Babita’s three bouts at the 2010 Commonwealth Games, stretched over the last quarter-hour of the film and reimagined with a heavy dose of artistic freedom.

Some of it is outlandish. As children, they’re executing complex moves that took us years to learn. There’s a five-point throw at the end. The most I’ve ever got for one move is four,” she says. Ruthless as a critic, Vinesh, however, has no intention to discredit the film as a global pop culture phenomenon that has found admirers in Russian Olympians, acclaimed Japanese video game developers and Chinese president Xi Jinping. Since its release last May as Shuai Jiao Baba (Let’s Wrestle, Dad), the film has grossed Rs 1,400 crore in China (almost three times the total in India) as parents have lined up in theatres with their children in the hope that it will encourage them to embrace the gruelling discipline.

“Wahan toh paagalon ki tarah chali hai (It’s done crazily well there),” says Vinesh. “It has helped wrestling in the sense that common people know about it and about the fact that women put in as much of an effort, if not more, to excel. If it inspires parents to allow girls to take up sports, then it’s a win. But as far as Tauji or Geeta-Babita are concerned, I don’t think you need Aamir Khan to make a movie on them to make them famous. They made their names eight years back and established themselves as top stars. People knew of their sacrifices. Their medals are their achievements, not the film,” she says.

Vinesh realises that Geeta, Babita and Mahavir would have faced the worst of the ridicule and resistance from villagers and that their uphill battle opened doors for everyone who followed. By 2005, both Geeta and Babita had won national and cadet titles at Asian Championships, and Vinesh remembers each medal and the procession that followed in the otherwise sleepy Balali. “Tum hi jeet jaao saare medals (You win all the medals),” Vinesh recalls telling them. “All of us would stand there, proud, but waiting for our time to come,” she says.

By the time Geeta and Babita took the podium in Delhi at the 2010 Commonwealth Games, Vinesh had amassed multiple national and Asian medals. Her breakout performance came four years later, with a gold at the Commonwealth Games and an Asiad bronze, and, with it, came the all-important permission to grow out her pixie cut. “We had to trim our hair frequently, even as grown-ups.  My one wish was to grow it out, and I finally got a chance during the six-month-long national camp in 2015 — long enough for it to touch my shoulders. I was scared when I returned home afterwards. Tauji asked me about it once, but didn’t object to it,” she says.

With the family running out of walls to hang the medals and accolades piling up with every event, there wasn’t much scope for last-minute script redrafts to fit Vinesh’s track in the 161-minute-long Dangal. That worked for Vinesh, who has deliberately stayed away from the limelight. Promotions for the film began shortly after the wrestler snapped her knee at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Then, at last year’s Bharat Kesari Dangal in Ambala, her comeback tournament after a seven-month-long injury layoff, a distant Vinesh used a giant pair of headphones to shield herself from the adulation of fans and nagging queries from reporters, leaving Mahavir’s younger daughters, Ritu and Sangita, to deal with both.

More than anything else, distancing herself from the “Phogat” tag has been about seeking an identity of her own. “They see the name at airports, and go ‘Oh, you’re a Phogat! Are you one of the sisters from Dangal?’ I tell them no. I appreciate the love and respect, but I wouldn’t want anybody to know me because of a film. They should know me as an Asian Games gold medallist. Sometimes, I tell them I am a different Phogat,” says Vinesh. Not that her first name is particularly safe. “Some people think I’m Dinesh. My birth name was Anita. But there was some error in the certificate. Tauji went to clarify and came back with this unusual name for me. Maybe because there’s ‘win’ in it?,” Vinesh says with a laugh. “Log bolte hain kya ladkowaala naam hai. Main bolti hun alag naam hai, isiliye kuch alag hi kaam kar rahi hun (People say, that’s a boy’s name. My retort is that because my name’s different, I do different stuff, too),” she adds.

Vinesh Phogat gestures during the medal ceremony of women’s freestyle 50 kg wrestling event at the Asian Games 2018. (Source: PTI)

As is the case with meteoric risers, Vinesh feels she is subjected to unwarranted scrutiny and comparisons. Her withdrawn demeanour is often mistaken for attitude. But scratch the surface, and Vinesh opens up — her sense of humour has a bite and she comes up with laugh-a-minute punchlines.“If you respect me, I will return it. If you ask long-winded questions, trying to dig up something, I have no time for you. Initially, I used to wonder about the reports — why is this person writing this or why are they focussing on my personal life? Now, I understand the gig. People have called this an attitude problem, but there’s no point explaining it. The people who matter are always with me,” she says.

For far too long, life has been about sacrifices. Vinesh rattles off botched birthday celebrations, with August 24 — her birthday — usually landing bang in the middle of important sporting events. The last celebration was four years ago, sandwiched between the Commonwealth and Asian Games medals. The year after was the camp for World Championships, and, on August 24, 2016, she was being operated upon. Last year was the disappointing 10th finish at the World Championships. This year, however, has been different. “They brought the cake to the airport,” says Vinesh, adding that the impromptu engagement to fellow wrestler Somvir Rathi in the parking lot made it a memory to cherish. “We thought it was the best time because I don’t know when I’ll get to celebrate a birthday like this again,” she says. Perhaps, two years later, with an Olympic gold around her neck? “Hopefully,” nods Vinesh, “I’ll try to bring the first Olympic wrestling gold to India.”

Her mother stares blankly when Sushil Kumar and Yogeshwar Dutt’s wrestling medals at the Olympic Games are mentioned. “Ae beta, manne tab ka na pata itna (Son, I don’t know of what happened earlier),” she says sheepishly, adding, “Ask me about recent stuff. Now, I follow it all. The (Pro Wrestling) league, Commonwealth, Asiad. Did you know Asian Games is as tough as the Olympics? Only the name is different.” “In 2032, my daughter will be at the Olympics! And if she doesn’t, then my boy will,” Harvinder jumps in with another wild declaration, before adding. “They are still very young. Time will tell.”

And so it goes in this Phogat household, where each member has defied gender roles and conventions with courage and hearty laughter. Vinesh’s story wouldn’t work as a sequel to Dangal, but as a different film set in the same universe. This is less melodrama, more slice of life. Less Manmohan Desai, more Hrishikesh Mukherjee. Ask Premlata whose craft she appreciates more among the two filmmakers and she looks puzzled again. Then, she points to the sky and says, “Iski kahaani toh vo likh raha hai (God is writing her script).”

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