Boxing Babylon to be screened at Norway Film Festival
July 17, 2015
“Villains bore me” (S.Ray) by Alfredo de Branganza / Imagineindia 2011
July 17, 2015

The Fight of a Lifetime

tumblr_inline_ml2z9fUmhV1rj9jtfIn early 2011, when Alfredo de Braganza, a Spanish documentary filmmaker, visited the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Chennai, he was intrigued to find young pugilists shadow-boxing on the premises.“Boxing in Chennai?’ I had asked myself,”says de Braganza, who, till then, believed the sport was practiced only in north India. He decided to find out more. After all, boxing is his favourite sport, and pugilists are his “brothers”. So the 36-year-old set about trying to unravel the boxing story in the south. His starting point soon turned out to be Olympic Deva—a “funny nickname” he had heard over and over at the stadium.

“The guards at the stadium told me that there were many boxers training at the boxing hall, coached by Olympic Deva, a railway employee,”recalls de Braganza. “I wanted to find out more. I was intrigued about the name to start with and also wanted to find out why a railway employee would work the whole day at his office and then find time to coach at the stadium.”

Little did he know he was going to meet Olympian Venkatesan Devarajan, one of the best boxers India has ever produced, and that they would begin a two-month journey in the summer filming the documentary, Boxing Babyon: The Story of Olympic Deva, which would get acclaim in film festivals both in India and abroad.

IIn early 2011, when Alfredo de Braganza, a Spanish documentary filmmaker, visited the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Chennai, he was intrigued to find young pugilists shadow-boxing on the premises.“Boxing in Chennai?’ I had asked myself,”says de Braganza, who, till then, believed the sport was practiced only in north India. He decided to find out more. After all, boxing is his favourite sport, and pugilists are his “brothers”. So the 36-year-old set about trying to unravel the boxing story in the south. His starting point soon turned out to be Olympic Deva—a “funny nickname” he had heard over and over at the stadium.

“The guards at the stadium told me that there were many boxers training at the boxing hall, coached by Olympic Deva, a railway employee,”recalls de Braganza. “I wanted to find out more. I was intrigued about the name to start with and also wanted to find out why a railway employee would work the whole day at his office and then find time to coach at the stadium.”

Little did he know he was going to meet Olympian Venkatesan Devarajan, one of the best boxers India has ever produced, and that they would begin a two-month journey in the summer filming the documentary, Boxing Babyon: The Story of Olympic Deva, which would get acclaim in film festivals both in India and abroad.

In 1994, Devarajan, just 21, became the first Indian to win a medal at a boxing World Cup—a bronze in the featherweight (-57kg) division. The now 39-year-old sports officer of the Indian Railways also had a one-year professional stint in the UK, which was cut short by a knee injury. That was followed by a decade-long fight with his employers, the Railways, to get the promotion due to him, a coaching job in the set up. And Devarajan fought with the same grit that had won him bouts during his career in the ring—the administrative battles and court cases, and the usual apathy from the government towards sports and sportspersons.

His fight is not singular sadly. Devarajan received his fair share of scars in the ring and off it too, and his story is based on a sickening template that the lives of almost all athletes in the country follow.

De Braganza insists Boxing Babylon, which was screened at the 2013 Jaipur International Film Festival and won the best documentary award at the Norway Tamil Film Festival in Oslo in March, is not just a portrayal of the boxer’s life, but also an attempt to show the struggles Indian athletes have to undergo in their pursuit of medals and glory.

“This was not an attempt to glorify Devarajan,”he says. “But personally, I would say, Deva is one person whom all Indians must celebrate and glorify. When he was just 22, he was ranked No. 3 in the world in his category.”

Devarajan’s achievement came at a time when boxing was in the fringes of the country’s sporting conscience. “They never had great facilities like they do now. That makes it all the more special,”says De Braganza, a globetrotter, who came to India in 2002 and travelled across the country for more than a year. Fascinated as he was by the cultural cauldron, he decided to set up base here.

“Things are, however, not much better now. Despite the huge population, Indians still find it tough to win medals at the Olympics,”says the Spaniard who has made two critically acclaimed films on India before Boxing Babylon. The first one—a documentary, Smoking Babas: Holy Men of India, on the Naga Sadhus of the Himalayan valley, was screened at the 2011 ImagineIndia International Film Festival in Madrid. His next project was an independent, low-budget film titled Maayan The Fisherman, which was shot with a 16mm camera and was selected as the Best Narrative Film at the Sunscreen Film Festival in Florida.

In Boxing Babylon, de Braganza wanted to “bring out the struggles Indian athletes endure, trying to point out the shortcomings in the country’s sporting infrastructure and support system”.

“Imagine how someone like Devarajan, who has won medals internationally, is not involved in the sports ministry or full-time coaching. I understand that the Railways have made him a sports officer just two months back. But shouldn’t they have done it earlier? And the award from Norway makes me very happy. While the Norway Tamil Film Festival is not in the league of the Berlin or Cannes festivals, it is very unique in its organisation, and one of the most prestigious Indian film festivals in Europe along with ImagineIndia, Madrid,” he adds.

De Braganza talks of the challenges he faced while shooting the documentary. His high-definition camera equipment would conk off every now and then because of the extreme heat of the Chennai summer. The production crew couldn’t use fans or AC to cool the equipment, as they wanted to avoid background disturbances. But his first challenge was to convince Devarajan.

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“When I met Deva first, I was charmed by his humble persona. He was shy too,”says de Braganza. “Initially he didn’t show any interest when I put forth the idea of this documentary. Then I went to train at the stadium with him for a few days. We became friends and then he slowly opened up. I wanted some footage of his bouts too. But many were of poor quality. I used his old photographs and newspaper clippings too in the documentary and that is the reason why I took more than a year to edit the raw footage. I wanted to make it as perfect as possible. The documentary’s main narrative is in English, with Tamil as the second language as some of the people interviewed could only talk in Tamil.”

It was a new experience for Olympic Deva too.

“I have done interviews for TV. But this was a full documentary and it took many days,” says Devarajan. “When Alfredo approached me, I told him I was coaching and doing my bit for boxing because I love to do it. I didn’t want anything out of it. But then he explained his concepts and showed a genuine interest for the sport and that struck a chord with me. He was thoroughly professional in the plans for the shoot too. We even did reshoots of training sessions as well as some shots on the Marina beach where a crowd gathered, thinking it was the shooting of a Tamil movie. That was fun. Imagine me being a movie star!”

The documentary opens up Olympic Deva’s world, which appears similar to the life of any other Indian boxer. Youngsters who take up the sport invariably belong to the lower-middle class and the poorer strata of society. Their fights are not confined to the ring and the opponents they out-punch inside it. More often than not, their biggest fights happen outside the square arena, ones that last a lifetime.

While Vijender Singh is the undisputed face of Indian boxing now, despite his recent alleged indiscretions, Devarajan is arguably the person, who, with his exploits inside the ring, began the momentum that the sport is enjoying now. His time came when the Cuban In 1994, Devarajan, just 21, became the first Indian to win a medal at a boxing World Cup—a bronze in the featherweight (–57kg) division. The now 39-year-old sports officer of the Indian Railways also had a one-year professional stint in the UK, which was cut short by a knee injury. That was followed by a decade-long fight with his employers, the Railways, to get the promotion due to him and a coaching job in the set-up. And Devarajan fought the administrative battles and court cases, and the usual apathy from the government with the same grit that had won him bouts during his career in the ring.

Sadly, his fight is not singular. Devarajan received his fair share of scars in the ring and off it too, and his story is based on a sickening template that the lives of almost all athletes in the country follow.

De Braganza insists Boxing Babylon, which was screened at the 2013 Jaipur International Film Festival and won the best documentary award at the Norway Tamil Film Festival in Oslo in March, is not just a portrayal of the boxer’s life, but also an attempt to show the struggles Indian athletes have to undergo in their pursuit of medals and glory.

“This was not an attempt to glorify Devarajan,”he says. “But, personally, I would say, Deva is one person whom all Indians must celebrate and glorify. When he was just 22, he was ranked No. 3 in the world in his category.”

Devarajan’s achievement came at a time when boxing was on the fringes of the country’s sporting conscience. “They never had great facilities like they do now. That makes it all the more special,”says De Braganza, a globetrotter, who came to India in 2002 and travelled across the country for more than a year. Fascinated as he was by the cultural cauldron, he decided to set upbase here.

“Things are, however, not much better now. Despite the huge population, Indians still find it tough to win medals at the Olympics,”says the Spaniard who has made two critically acclaimed films on India before Boxing Babylon. The first one—a documentary, Smoking Babas: Holy Men of India, on the Naga Sadhus of the Himalayas, was screened at the 2011 ImagineIndia International Film Festival in Madrid. His next project was an independent, low-budget film titled Maayan The Fisherman, which was shot with a 16mm camera and was selected as the Best Narrative Film at the Sunscreen Film Festival in Florida.

In Boxing Babylon, De Braganza wanted to “bring out the struggles Indian athletes endure, trying to point out the shortcomings in the country’s sporting infrastructure and support system”.

“Imagine how someone like Devarajan, who has won medals internationally, is not involved in the sports ministry or full-time coaching. I understand that the Railways have made him a sports officer just two months back. But shouldn’t they have done it earlier?” asks  De Braganza, before explaining the significance of the award the documentary won in Norway.

“The award from Norway makes me very happy. While the Norway Tamil Film Festival is not in the league of the Berlin or Cannes festivals, it is very unique in its organisation, and one of the most prestigious Indian film festivals in Europe along with ImagineIndia, Madrid,” he adds.

De Braganza talks of the challenges he faced while shooting the documentary. His high-definition camera equipment would conk off every now and then because of the extreme heat of the Chennai summer. The production crew couldn’t use fans or ACs to cool the equipment, as they wanted to avoid background disturbances. But his first challenge was to convince Devarajan.

“When I first met Deva, I was charmed by his humble persona. He was shy too,” says De Braganza. “Initially, he didn’t show any interest when I put forth the idea of this documentary. Then I went to train at the stadium with him for a few days. We became friends and then he slowly opened up. I wanted some footage of his bouts too. But many were of poor quality. I used his old photographs and newspaper clippings too in the documentary and that is the reason why I took more than a year to edit the raw footage. I wanted to make it as perfect as possible. The documentary’s main narrative is in English, with Tamil as the second language as some of the people interviewed could only speak in Tamil.”

It was a new experience for Olympic Deva too.

“I have done interviews for TV. But this was a full documentary and it took many days,” says Devarajan. “When Alfredo approached me, I told him I was coaching and doing my bit for boxing because I love to do it. I didn’t want anything out of it. But then he explained his concepts and showed a genuine interest for the sport and that struck a chord with me. He was thoroughly professional in the plans for the shoot too. We even did reshoots of training sessions as well as some shots on the Marina beach where a crowd gathered, thinking it was the shooting of a Tamil movie. That was fun. Imagine me being a movie star!”

The documentary opens up Olympic Deva’s world, which appears similar to that of any other Indian boxer. Youngsters who take up the sport invariably belong to the lower-middle class and the poorer strata of society. Their fights are not confined to the ring and the opponents they out-punch inside it. More often than not, their biggest fights happen outside the square arena, ones that last a lifetime.

While Vijender Singh is the undisputed face of Indian boxing now, despite his recent alleged indiscretions, Devarajan is arguably the person, who, with his exploits inside the ring, began the momentum that the sport is enjoying now. His time came when the Cuban coach, Blas Iglesias Fernandez, started training the national team. Fernandez had a big say in Devarajan’s rise from Chennai, a place not readily associated with boxing.

Devarajan was born in 1973 and went on to represent India at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, when he was just 19. It was young Devarajan’s fourth international meet when he stepped into the ring in Barcelona, He didn’t enjoy the luck of the draw either as his bantamweight (–54kg) first-round opponent was the eventual gold-medal winner from Cuba, Joel ‘El Cepillo’ Casamayor. Devarajan lost 13–7, but surprised the Cuban on many occasions with his trademark footwork and quick jabs.

“I was inexperienced but I did give Casamayor a good fight,” says Devarajan. “Looking back at the Games, I believed then that my time at the Olympics would come as I was young and had years left in me.”

But Devarajan never featured in the Olympics after that. Neither did his nemesis, Casamayor. While the Cuban defected to the US on the eve of the 1996 Atlanta Games, and turned pro later; Devarajan, upset at the lack of support or recognition following his World Cup medal, also turned pro and shifted to the UK.

“I asked the federation to send me to Cuba to train,”says Devarajan. “They said no. Besides, no rewards or promotions came my way after my bronze medal in the World Cup. So I decided to turn pro. Now, when I look at it, I feel it was a mistake. In England it never worked out well as I had little monetary support to start with. The training system and fights in pro boxing are entirely different and then I got injured too, a knee ligament tear. If I had continued fighting amateur, I could have won more medals for the country. After I returned to India and expressed my intent to fight again, the federation didn’t allow me, saying I couldn’t return to the amateur ranks as I had fought in the professional arena.”

Things would have been different had Devarajan, and perhaps many like him during that era, received the “better” facilities and support the sport now gets. His quality is evident from how he could stand toe-to-toe with champions like Casamayor. He also beat reputed boxers like Mongolian Lkhagva Dugarbaaatar, a.k.a. Lakva Sim, who went on to become a professional champion, winning the World Boxing Association (WBA) lightweight and super featherweight titles.

Adding insult to injury, the Railways boxer received a gift from the Tamil Nadu government for his World Cup medal—a run-down house that was part of a free housing project in the suburbs of Chennai. He was also given the Arjuna Award in 1995, while, perhaps, better training opportunities would have been the ideal reward.

Till a couple of months back, Devarajan was coaching youngsters at his training centre near the Perambur Integral Coach Factory and the Nehru Stadium in Chennai. Today he is happy training 20-odd young Railways boxers in Bilaspur. More important, he is “always near the boxing ring”.

“Now I am attached to the Railways team in Bilaspur. Here, just like in Chennai, I find youngsters around me who are keen to learn boxing, not just punching. Boxing is an art. It needs technique, footwork…. It is not just about out-punching opponents. But these days, I see more and more international players from India forsaking ring craft and going for a very bare form of fighting. It is happening because coaches are keen on early results and they push their students towards that, forsaking their full development. In the long run, they suffer and get outclassed when they challenge the topboxers in the world.”

Boxing Babylon takes us to the roots of the deep love Devarajan has for the ring. His father, Kesavelu Venkatesan, a bodybuilder who held the Mr Tamil Nadu title for three years and also won medals at the Mr India competitions, instilled in him the love for boxing. “He wanted us three brothers to get into boxing,” says Devarajan. “And we had Muhammad Ali posters all over the walls at home and he used to quote Ali always.”

Devarajan and his younger brothers, Bhaskaran and Harikrishnan, took to the sport, all three becoming national champions. The 29-year-old Harikrishnan is now pursuing a professional career in New Zealand.

The documentary narrates the story of a boxer from India who adored, cherished and nourished that ring craft. After all, Devarajan had to follow the words of his idol, Ali, whose quotes were always an inspiration: “Everyone can fight, but only a few can box.” “And,” says Olympic Deva, “champions like Ali were not just punchers, they were beautiful in the way they went about punching too.”

Boxing Babylon, and Olympic Deva, could inspire the next generation of Indian pugilists. But both De Braganza and Devarajan feel the documentary should act as an eye-opener for the sports administrators in the country as the state of affairs at the grassroots level is not very different from what the boxer faced during his early days.

“That would be a bigger award for me than the one I will receive in Oslo during the ceremony of the Norway Tamil Film Festival on April 27,” says De Braganza.

One can’t help but feel that the Spanish filmmaker is hoping for an elusive ‘award’, knowing how sports administrators run things in India—the latest jolt being the cryogenic state of affairs following the suspension of the Indian Olympic Association by the International Olympic Committee, resulting in subsequent restrictions on some national sports bodies in the country, including boxing, from fielding sides at international meets.

– Leslie Xavier