Kolkata Feb 25, 2011 (Calcutta Tube / IBNS): The IFA shield is a knock-out competition organised by the Indian Football Association which governs the game of football in West Bengal. The fourth oldest competition in the world was initiated in 1893. Legend has it that it was dominated by British Army teams in India until the Mohan Bagan Club of Kolkata broke the jinx with a 2-1 win over East Yorkshire Regiment in 1911. This paved the way for other Indian teams to take on the British. As a report in The Empire says: “All honour to Mohun Bagan!! Those eleven players are not only a glory to themselves and to their Club and to the great nation to which they belong; they are the glory to the game itself.”
Egaro, directed by Arun Roy, bears this out beautifully with a well-knit script, good acting, good cinematography and period music with chants of Bande Mataram filling the sound track.
Kausik Bandopadhyay, who teaches History at North Bengal University and is involved in his Doctorate on the Social History of Bengali Football at the University of Calcutta, writes, “It is clear from reports that when Mohan Bagan entered the final of the IFA shield, signs of a great mass awakening were visible.”
“People irrespective of class, caste or community were attracted by the dream of beating the ruling British at their own game. Nothing could be greater than that the racially proud Whites would be defeated by the so-called inferior natives in direct physical/ masculine confrontation.”
Mohan Bagan’s victory destroyed the myth of British invincibility in the eyes of the Bengalis and also of Indians. People all over began to appreciate the victory in the new light of anti- British resentment and rally behind the club as an emblem of nationalist pride.
During the first decade of the 20th century, several things happened in Bengal that changed somewhat the status quo of power within the British administration in India. The first was the Bengal Partition enforced by Lord Curzon in 1905. The second was the execution of Khudiram Bose for his attempt to murder Kingsford in 1908. The third is Mohan Bagan’s historic winning of the prestigious IFA Shield . Egaro is a fitting tribute to this win that marks its 100th year.
Two of the eleven actors who portray the real-life players are professional footballers. All eleven actors had to undergo a gruelling training session for three months under Manojit Das, once captain of rival East Bengal club who had also coached the Indian team.
He created the ‘look’ for the players. Three portrayals in the real-life Mohan Bagan team will remain carved in the memory: Heerok Das in the role of Sibdas Bhaduri, the captain, Ronodeep Basu as Abhilash Ghosh and Chandan Bhattacharya who infuses life into the character of Rev. Sudhir Chatterjee, the only player in the team who wore boots.
The others had to play barefoot. It was a match that turned into a battle between two teams where Mohan Bagan was cheered by hundreds of crowds that thronged their side of the audience while East Yorkshire Regiment had a trickling of British officers and beautiful ladies to back them. Sibdas and Abhilash scored the two goals.
Prasun Banerjee, a long-time player with Mohan Bagan, says, “The day of victory was not just a critical day for the IFA Shield Final, but was an unforgettable day in the history of India’s struggle for freedom. It’s a continuous chapter of our national history we look back on with pride.”
In the aftermath of Mohan Bagan’s success, football as an outlet for aggression gradually came to reflect the ‘pent-up nationalism’ of Bengali professionals and students. A large section of the affluent and educated Bengali community hesitated to take active part in the freedom struggle. The football field was their safe haven, which could also be used to confront the British. “Football assumed importance as a potent nationalist weapon and beating the British produced an immense emotional satisfaction,” informs Banerjee.
Sports journalist Gautam Chakraborty recalls that special trains were organised from suburbs like Baranagar, Ranaghat and Burdwan town to witness the game in Kolkata. Porters charged Rs.2.00 to travel a distance that normally would cost eight annas those days.
Tickets priced at Rs.2.00 were sold at Rs.15.00 marking the beginning of ‘black’ tickets in India. The score cards in those days were kites being flown in the sky in team colours. If East York Regiment scored a goal, one would see lots of kites in black bearing the score figure in the sky. If Mohan Bagan was the scorer, maroon-and-black kites would be flown in the sky, with the score written on them.
Egaro shows it a bit differently through a romantic suggestion depicting Bina, who loves Abhilash, running to the terrace to anxiously gaze at the sky waiting for the Mohan Bagan colours to come up.
Heerok Das says that after the film was released, he got a call from Sibdas Bhaduri’s great grand -daughter who wanted to meet him in person to congratulate him for having portrayed her famous father so convincingly. Incidentally, Heerok, a Mumbai-based actor, has never played football in his life!
The film builds up the excitement right from the moment when parents of some of the players oppose their sons’ participation against a team of the British rulers, to the crowd cheering the Mohan Bagan team. Young boys climb up trees and tie themselves to the trunks to prevent a fall when they clap their hands to cheer.
An actor who plays female roles in jatra performances cancels all his engagements, takes off his wig to reveal a bald pate and becomes the self-appointed commentator, hurling choicest Bengali abuses at the British players who cannot understand the language. The British players are equally abusive and attacking during the game. The referee, however, is impartial, refusing to bend under the orders of his superiors who try to force him to see Mohan Bagan defeated.
“It’s not a film that deals only with the Mohan Bagan win or even with football. Football in this film sings a victory song for all team sports. It’s a film that shows how people who are deprived, who feel defeated as they fight obstacles, can seek fulfillment and feel triumph just by lending their wholehearted support to a fighting team,” sums up Prasun Banerjee.
– Shoma A. Chatterji