A Gold Medal and A Few Things That Could Not Be Partitioned

Delhi’s record rains and a thunder-clad sky meant waterlogged roads, delayed plans and cancelled events. But in a quiet auditorium in the city, a handful of film enthusiasts and some accidental viewers came together for the final screening of Taangh (‘longing’) – a film by Bani Singh that won the top award at Nepal’s Travelling Film Southasia festival.

The film has picked up many more accolades since its debut last year and has been screened globally and across the country.

Singh describes the film as a ‘quest for a lost homeland’.

Bani’s father Grahanandan Singh, called ‘Nandy’ by his friends and family, won gold for India in the backdrop of Partition at the 1948 and 1952 Olympics as part of the national hockey team. The film is as much about her father’s journey as a two-time Olympian and his memories of Partition, as it is a tale of friendship preserved across two countries and seven decades.

The film opens with a montage of shots of Nandy’s house from what seems like a prayer meeting after his death, interspersed with images of when he occupied those spaces himself. The last four years had been tough after Nandy suffered a stroke that left him partially paralysed and took away his speech, the voiceover informs us.

It was then that Singh decided to document the life her father had lived before she knew him. When she asked him about his hockey days, Nandy asked her to ‘go meet his buddies’: Keshav Datt and Balbir Singh.

Keshav Dutt photographed by Graciela Magnoni for ‘Taangh’. Photo: Instagram/@taanghproject

Like Singh’s family, my grandparents too came to newly divided India from Lahore during Partition. My grandfather, Raj Bahal, was 11 years old at the time, but his three elder brothers had grown up in the same Lahore as Nandy’s, pursuing higher education, working and doing what young men typically do – saunter around in the city’s bustling lanes. Lanes that I got to see for the first time through this film.

For years my mother wanted to visit Lahore to be able to see the city her father talked about with so much love, but familial duties kept her occupied. It also didn’t help that the two countries were often caught in diplomatic standoffs, making a successful visa application fairly unlikely.

So when I watched the film for the first time at a screening in Chennai – amid similar torrential rains, coincidentally – I immediately called my mother to tell her that a film like this exists. That someone had made a film about exactly how she feels.

Even though Partition was not a personal experience for many in the audience that day, there was not a single person who was not utterly moved by what they had seen. What Taangh does so brilliantly is plant the longing felt on both sides of the border inside you without you even noticing.

Team photograph, Amir Kumar, G. Singh (Nandy) and Keshav Datt – are seen standing together in the right hand corner. Photo: Instagram/@taanghproject

Bani’s conversations with her father’s friends led her on a quest to find one Shahzada Shahrukh in Pakistan – the missing musketeer in this story. Nandy, Shahrukh and Dutt had all played on the same team before Partition. Later, Shahrukh had helped Datt escape Lahore and reach Delhi safely, after which the two lost touch. The three met again at the 1948 London Olympics where India defeated England to win the gold in hockey. This was the last time that all three boys from Government College Lahore had come together to play – even if on opposing sides.

Singh’s 50-minute journey across the border to meet Shahrukh is one of the more important segments in the film; and so deeply emotional that one immediately understands why the film is called ‘longing.’

The families of Nandy Singh, Keshav Dutt and Shahzada Shahrukh at the London screening of ‘Taangh’ at the London Indian Film Festival. Photo: Instagram/@taanghproject

While talking about the film at a Bengaluru event, Bani said that it was almost like a fictional film in a sense that the story was quite dramatic and charged with emotion. So to authenticate the story, she worked in London trying to get access to footage from Partition and from the matches her father had played in during the Olympics.

“I managed to find a 45-second clip of the hockey final but then there is a politics of the archives as well. I wrote to the Olympic archives saying I wanted to use it and they told me it would cost me £8,000 per minute – which was unaffordable, really. When I told them I am the daughter of one of the players, they said, ‘Okay, for you £4000 a minute’,” Bani laughed while speaking about the film at the talk.

They worked around this by shooting Bani watching the archives and playing them on a TV monitor, she added while talking about the difficulties she faced in putting the documentary together. It also served as a reminder that while it is an exciting time for Indian non-fiction, the ground is still green for Indian filmmakers and in some ways for the audience too, who, despite films like All That Breathes and Writing With Fire getting recognition on the global stage, barely have any access to these films outside niche festivals.

Taangh, though held back by its limited screenings, makes for a gripping watch despite the mostly linear storytelling and builds up to moments of high emotion, each accompanied with a payoff that leaves you wanting to know more. To achieve that in her first film is commendable. To achieve that in a non fiction film, even more so.

“There was always this talk of watan, and this sort of comparison with whatever is now and it could never match up to what was left behind, like everything was better there. And still there would be [talk of] this war with Pakistan and then Lahore would come up in a completely different context. So it was confusing for them also because they had suddenly been forced to take sides. As a five-year-old, I wasn’t sure if I could say I was from Lahore because I knew that’s the country we were fighting at the time,” Bani explained.

Bani said she would often get confused as a child when someone asked where she was from. A confusion I share with her. Others can say Bombay or Delhi and so on, but can either of us say Lahore? So instead of a one-word reply, I often have to rely on a whole sentence to answer this question, which then usually leads to a few more. For Bani it was naturally more complicated because Nandy had joined the armed forces soon after and Pakistan was still an enemy.

But if one zooms out a little and goes beyond what’s literally being talked about in the film, you get a sense of the larger point the film drives home. It adeptly, and possibly inadvertently, weaves all these themes into a complex whole about what it means to be an Indian.