While there is much anticipation and publicity for Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s big budget biopic on Milkha Singh, Boxing Babylon, a film made on an unknown hero of Indian boxing has largely gone unnoticed in India but has received critical acclaim in film festivals abroad. The film is made on V Devarajan, an Olympian, an Arjuna awardee and the first Indian boxer to win a medal at the Boxing World Cup.
Spaniard Alfredo de Braganza, 36, spent most of his life travelling the world — working as a dishwasher and waiter at five star hotels in the UK, a mechanic in Panama and a sports goods salesman in the Dominican Republic. His travels brought him to India last year where he started working with a Spanish textile company. While in Chennai, a short news piece on boxing coaching in Chennai’s Nehru Stadium got de Braganza, a keen follower of the sport, excited.
“At first, I was surprised. I had never heard of a boxing culture in South India, I thought it was restricted to the North. I was intrigued. I wanted to find out who might be coaching, what is the level of boxing in the city, what facilities were available,” he says.
On reaching Nehru Stadium, the guard told him that coaching would begin after 5pm every day after ‘Olympic Deva’ was done with his day job with the Railways. “I was shocked. ‘An Olympian, working as a Railway employee in the day, and coaching in a stadium in the evening,’ I repeated. The guard said he was sure of what he was saying.”
His curiosity took him back to the stadium at 5pm. “His face was too kind to be of a boxer, I wasn’t sure if he could land a punch on someone,” says de Braganza.
Two days later, the Spaniard enrolled in Devarajan’s course. “He joined as a student but he would try talking to me a lot. He wanted to know everything — my life, my achievements, hurdles, failures, career,” says the champion boxer.
After a few days of training in which Devarajan reluctantly answered the few hundred questions de Braganza threw at him, the reclusive boxer opened up. “I didn’t ask questions with the intention of making a film. I was very curious and shocked that a boxer of his stature and with so many achievements was so unknown in the rest of the country, even in Chennai,” de Braganza says.
The Spaniard thought that Devarajan’s story had to be told. “He took care of his own training and diet and trained under difficult conditions. He also didn’t have the fame and luxuries that boxers today have — media coverage, sponsorship from big companies, advertisement contracts, reality shows and special appearances in movies,” says de Braganza.
After convincing Devarajan to come on board, he started research on the boxer’s life. He went through old matches recorded on VHS tapes, “rotten yellow” newspaper cuttings and personal photographs taken throughout his career. de Braganza also interviewed Devarajan’s family, parents, friends and students.
The film recently won in the best documentary category at the Norway Film Festival. At the Jaipur International Film Festival, the theatre was completely packed. At the end of the screening, there was a demand that the film be screened again. de Braganza was invited to introduce himself and answer questions. “On popular request by the audiene, the projection staff even screened the film a second time,” says the director.
Devarajan was touched to see the recognition the film got him. “After the film was screened at film festivals, I got many calls to congratulate me and to appreciate what I did for the sport. It was a terrific feeling,” he says.
de Braganza is now travelling across the country, looking for more inspiring stories to capture on film. Who knows how many other Devarajans this nomad will end up finding?