• My guest this week is the original Kabir Khan (of Chak De India), Mir Ranjan Negi, who didn’t quite fail to score the goal, but paid the price for consuming too many. But right now he is enjoying the fact that India scored just that many goals — seven — in the recent Asian Championships final against South Korea.
It’s something like that now.
• So the joy is back. After 25 long years. Take us back to 1982. What happened? I know everybody talks about the film Chak De India. Take us back to that day at the Asiad finals, when you were the goalkeeper. You were facing one of Pakistan’s finest-ever forward lines. In fact one of the finest-ever forward lines anywhere. Hassan Sardar, Kalimullah . . . they were the best.
It was the first time colour TV arrived. There was multi-camera shooting of the match. When the match started, there was a lot of pressure. The then prime minister, Mrs Indira Gandhi was there, Rajiv Gandhi, the then president Giani Zail Singh, all the dignitaries. Buta Singh used to visit the Games village every day, tell us so many things . . . that Mrs Gandhi was looking forward to a hockey victory.
• The other seven gold medals we won did not matter.
Slowly, the pressure built up. People used to come to us with prasad every day. There was a lot of pressure from all sides. To make matters worse, even the coaches would tell us, ‘You have to die for your country.’ My roommate was Mohammad Shahid. He couldn’t sleep for two days because of the pressure.
• And Mohammad Shahid was one of the finest forwards ever.
We scored the first goal. It was a penalty stroke by Zafar Iqbal. And then the whole team collapsed. One after another seven goals were scored. Overnight everything was lost.
• Zafar Iqbal actually figures in Chak De India. People only saw the image of you at the goalpost, helpless as seven goals were scored.
After the game, when I saw the footage, I saw the camera going from one direction to the other and maybe there was some editing problem but it showed me in very bad light . . . as if I had left the goalpost and run away.
• The impression was that you were charging too early.
No, they didn’t show me at the goalpost at all. People thought maybe I got scared and left my post. The next day there was talk that I had taken money from Pakistan, that I’d been seen going to the Pakistan High Commission, that somebody saw me coming down the steps of the Pakistan High Commission. So many things were said about me. A Hindi poet wrote a satire about me, there were cartoons about me.
• (Pointing to a newspaper clipping in Negi’s file) What does this say?
It says ‘Bharatiya hockey bik gaya. (Indian hockey has sold out).’
• Suggesting that you had sold out.
The Hindi poet Om Prakash Aaditya wrote this poem about me. (Points to a caricature with the poem, showing a bald Negi) At that time I wasn’t bald.
• It says, ‘Dharti gol, ambar gol, suraj chand sitare gol, goal hua toh hua, main bhi gol’ It goes on to suggest that you had compromised.
I was a victim of this sort of yellow journalism. I felt as if someone very close to me in my family had died. There was absolute silence. I think for two days we did not have any food. We were very scared to come out of the National Stadium.
• You did face shouts of, ‘Gaddar!’
Yes, yes. Everywhere I went. I faced whatever is shown happening to Kabir Khan (in the film).
• You faced more in life.
It was more horrifying than what is shown in the film.
• Give us some examples of what happened.
Two days we did not have food. Then we went to a restaurant near Pandara Road. I was accompanied by some team-mates. Suddenly we were gheraoed by some 50 people who were having a party. They shouted at us, shouted slogans and literally chased us away from the place. We had to forgo our food and go back. My uncle booked a first class ticket for me so that I wouldn’t be troubled. But after I got in, within no time there were 50-100 people outside the compartment shouting slogans. I came to my house in Indore and found all the window panes broken.
• What were they saying?
Maro, paisa khaya hai. Things like that.
• But the theory was: ‘Paisa khaya.’
Yes, that I’d been bribed.
• I think there was a price fixed — one lakh per goal or something?
Yes, one lakh rupees for each goal. Not actually true, but they said things like that. And the media added a lot of fuel to the fire. They said a CBI inquiry was on against me. Even when I was talking to friends in the customs department, where I worked, they would say I was being chased everywhere by the CBI. They would say, ‘Hamarey upar bhi aa jayega (We will be targeted too).’ My life became hell. I even thought of committing suicide. Then my family decided to get me married in 1983. But people’s anger hadn’t diminished. They put out the lights at my marriage reception. Someone took out the main fuse, they removed the main switch. And it was friends with scooters and motorcycles who provided light for the ceremony by turning on the headlights. And this is a fact. It can be confirmed.
• One year after the Asiad final.
Wherever I went, people would knowingly or unknowingly introduce me as, ‘Mr Negi, man of seven goals.’ That was a blot on my life and mind. It was very sad.
• Frankly, on Astroturf seven goals can be scored once the defence cracks up, because it is such a fast surface. After that particular game, we’ve scored seven now, we have conceded six or seven goals many times against Australia, Germany, Spain.
Actually, India was playing Pakistan on home soil in Delhi and people had paid up to Rs 1,000 for a hundred-rupee ticket. I don’t blame the people.
• How did your association treat you?
The players were always with me; they knew I was not at fault. About the officials, I don’t want to say anything.
• You became the fall guy who could be blamed for everything. Frankly, a goalkeeper comes into play only after the defence has failed. For all those seven goals, somebody got past our entire defence. Our defence crumbled that day.
There was some problem in the defence. In the morning they announced one team, and in the afternoon a different team played. A very good friend, Rajinder Singh, was a full-back. Unfortunately, he had a very bad knee that day and couldn’t play well. There were a lot of problems. But the whole team played badly. Just eight days later, however, we went and beat Pakistan.
• So you could have done better if you’d all been relaxed rather than charged up like that.
• I see that you don’t hold very much against your defenders who let you down that day. Rajinder Singh figures in Chak De India.
No. Rajinder is a very good friend of mine. It happens. It’s not his mistake. It’s the mistake of the team management. They played him despite his injury. Everybody knew it. How could they have overlooked such a big mistake.
• He has a cameo in Chak Dey India, isn’t it?
Yes, he’s clapping when his team wins against the women’s hockey team.
• He’s the coach of the Indian men’s team that beats the women’s team.
He’s a very nice man. He was top scorer in the World Cup held in Mumbai. He’s a great full-back. But such things have happened in the past.
• He’s also a penalty corner specialist. Many squad mates, many full-backs are in the film, isn’t it?
I included them because I wanted people to be able to identify our great players.
• Zafar Iqbal is there.
Zafar Iqbal is there. M.K. Kaushik is there as Pakistani coach. We have these players who play for ONGC. They are all real hockey players.
• Zafar Iqbal was your captain, who scored the first goal in that Asiad final against Pakistan.
Yes. In the film he’s the manager of my team.
• Many thought he made a mistake by scoring the first goal and provoking the Pakistanis. Tell us briefly about each of the goals.
I remember one in which the ball was scooped from the left and was bouncing in front of me and Hassan Sardar took it over my head. Somehow, the umpire allowed it. Now, I could have hit him on the face without making it too obvious.
• You could have pretended it was an accident?
He’d have gone out. And my life would have been very different. But then there’s this thing called sportsmanship. Even today I keep thinking whether I should have hit him or not.
• The game was more physical then.
Yes. I could have hit him easily and his going out would have helped the team in a big way. We could have won the match. I still think whether I should have given it to him.
• Reset his face a bit. Describe the goal that bothers you the most.
In most of the goals, the Pakistani forwards used to come easily towards the goal. I was alone and had no option but to charge. And I was good at charging. But on that day, because of the pressure, I wasn’t moving properly. I wasn’t able to do things that I could have done easily. Usually, what I do is leave one post open for the forward (to try to score) and at the last moment I block it.
• He thinks it’s empty and he’ll go for it but you know you’ll cover it. It’s a deception.
Yes, but things were not working. I should have been replaced at half-time because I was not playing well. You can make out from a player’s movement he’s not doing his best.
• So you’d sort of lost nerve.
Naturally, after three-four goals. I don’t know why the coaches didn’t replace me.
• Did you ask the coach to change you.
No. But I still think if he had changed me, I’d have played for the country for another four-five years easily.
• So basically you became the fall guy. You were dropped after that match and never picked again.
Everybody went to Australia. They won there and proved themselves. But it took me 16 years to prove myself.
• And how did you prove yourself 16 years later?
I was always involved in hockey.
• You didn’t give up.
I feel the ground is a big stress-buster. You play golf, you play hockey, anything on the ground, and when you come to the ground you forget everything else. You just see the ball. My friends, Joachim Carvalho, Marvin Fernandes, they all pulled me back to the ground. ‘You must play, you must coach,’ they said. I continued playing for Bombay, and was playing well. Then I started coaching and continued to do so.
• Did you start coaching the women?
That was after the Asiad. In 1998, for the first time, I was called to coach the men’s hockey team and my wife was against it. She said it had taken her 16 years to forget whatever we had undergone. She was a little shaken. Suppose something happens again, the whole world will not spare us and they’ll think this man has really taken money. Anyway I went ahead and I won a gold medal for the country after 32 long years. Then in 2003 and 2004 I was with the women’s team and whatever tournament they played, we won the gold medal. It was a great feeling.
• Hockey is a sport that generates so much passion. What did Shahid Ali (former Pakistani captain) speak to you about?
Shahid Ali was sorry about my son. I’d lost my 19-year-old son.
• That was the second tragedy after that Asiad final.
It was the worst thing that could have happened.
• What exactly happened?
My son was doing the final year in hotel management at the Taj. These children have a habit of keeping their helmet hanging on the handlebars (rather than wearing it). He was riding a bike, hit a boulder and fell down. There was no one around for 15 minutes. He died later. Thirteen days after that, Yashraj films approached me for making a movie on hockey. I said it wasn’t possible for me to help them in any way. I said I’d introduce them to other players and they could help.
• Your squad mates.
Yes. I said I couldn’t leave my wife. But they wanted me. One day I went there and met Jaideep Sahni (the scriptwriter of Chak De India).
• So you agreed to work in the film. Good things and bad things happen. Not just the success of the film, you must also feel better that now there’s suddenly so much interest in hockey.
Yes, I’m absolutely delighted.
• It’s nice to see so many girls turning up for practice here. And I can see they are from different parts of India. Which team is this?
The Central Railway team.
• Thank you very much, Mr Negi.
I have a long way to go still and I’m laying a foundation for the game. I want to promote hockey in a big way.
• It’s been so inspirational to have you on Walk the Talk. I hope people are listening and I hope they learn from you. It’s a tough task to take setbacks in your stride and carry on with a smile. Thank you very much.
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