“Goonga Pehelwan” throws a welcome light on Virender Singh’s extraordinary struggles inside and outside the wrestling ring.
“Goonga Pehelwan” opens with a montage of some of the greatest moments of India’s sporting history. A predictable set of sportspersons — Sachin Tendulkar, Leander Paes, Kapil Dev, Jeev Milkha Singh — pass in quick succession, against a backdrop of celebratory commentary. But as soon as the frame freezes on Virender Singh, there is a deafening silence.
Known better as goonga pehelwan, on account of his speech and hearing impairment, Virender has won a medal in each international wrestling tournament he has participated in, including gold at the 2005 and 2013 Deaflympics in Melbourne and Sofia respectively. Despite these victories, Virender remains woefully underknown. Directed by Mit Jani, Prateek Gupta and Vivek Chaudhary, the documentary, which was screened in association with Lila Foundation for Translocal Initiatives to a full house in Delhi recently, shines a welcome light on him and narrates the story of his extraordinary struggle inside and outside the wrestling ring.
The trigger for the film was an article last year on him. “When we saw the story, it was a sad story to us. It was the story of a man wronged by the system. But when we met Virender, he came across as an extremely hopeful character,” says Vivek.
Despite the injustice he has continually faced, Virender retains his sense of humour. Asked how it feels to be deaf, he expresses gratitude for the sympathy it attracts from women.
Shot between February and August this year, the film follows Virender from the Chhatrasal Stadium in New Delhi, where he is one among a crowd, to the mud wrestling arenas of north Indian villages, where he is something of a legend, and as yet undefeated in the dangals.
On mud or mat, he is used to training and competing with the so-called able-bodied wrestlers. Although the world of wrestling doesn’t discriminate between the able-bodied and disabled, the scales are forever tilted against the latter. Referees insist on using the whistle, rather than gestures or touch, which ensures that Virender’s fights are never fair. It is this systemic exclusion which has pushed him to the fringes of the wrestling world, onto tournaments for deaf athletes and the world of mud wrestling in which he reluctantly completes.
Deafness, the film reminds us, is also the inability to hear. The directors interview figures from the wrestling fraternity, who are not only ignorant of one of their best sportspersons but also insensitive towards his plight. “We told them we are making a film on Indian wrestling and its historical context. If we had told them our real intention, the answers would have been very different, and maybe we wouldn’t even have been allowed to interview them. We had to throw in a lot of dummy questions…they would gloat about what they have done for the sport, and how they are such great administrators, and then we would slide in a question about Virender,” Vivek adds.
Having started out with just the intention of making people aware of the story, the directors, after researching sports policies and the vacuum on disability therein, decided to take on a more activist role. The film is part of their campaign, ‘Mission Rio’, to help Virender realise his dream of competing in the 2016 Olympics.
They are mobilising support for Virender’s cause, and will submit their recommendations to the Sports Ministry. “If a direct method doesn’t work out, we will go to the court and ask for redressal,” says Vivek.