In 1948, the Indian hockey team won the gold medal at the London Olympics, creating a historic victory. Despite the incredible victory against the colonizer on home soil, the victory carries the weight of a divided nation and the trauma that will haunt the generation affected by the unprecedented violence of the Partition of India.
Bani Singh’s documentary Taangh (Longing) delves into this tumultuous moment in history as she unearths the life of her father Grahanandan Singh [or Nandy Singh as he is known]an Indian hockey champion who won two consecutive gold medals at the 1948 and 1952 Olympics. The film weaves the personal narrative into the larger canvas of historical events in an attempt to understand this glorious moment in Nandi Singh’s life in the context of a nation in turmoil.
Taangh Review: A Poignant Tribute to a Father and India’s Forgotten Champions
In an exclusive chat with Cinestaan.com, the director talks about how the film came about. She recalls, “When I started this project, I didn’t know it would become a movie. It really started because [my father] he had a stroke and he would relax and go into a happier space when I would read my 1948 memoir. [Olympic] gold. I thought I’d write an article about it.”
She continued, “The fact that India won [its] the colonial master one year after independence was a big enough story. But then, in my conversations with him, I think quite by accident, I started talking to him about his college and that’s when we started to dig in and look at the hockey team. I could see that there was a historical significance to the story, so I thought it should be made into a movie.”
Although the idea of making a film wasn’t there yet, Singh’s instinct was to put together a proposal to get a film crew to do it. With that in mind, she began recording the interviews as part of the research for the film.
“There were these two events in his life that were the most dramatic,” she explained. “One was [Olympic gold medal] and the other was the Partition, both of which happened within a year of each other. Every effort was made to talk about gold and every effort was made to bring down Partition. There’s this complete schism there.”
“You don’t want to talk about the trauma, but you want to talk about an event so close to it and so related to it,” Bani said. “It was really the unraveling of that knot. I was possessed [and] I wanted answers to questions I didn’t even know at the time. For me, too, I was finally trying to understand what was being referred to, but it was never really clearly described and the ability to go there.”
The creation of Pakistan itself was a strange phenomenon where the newly created state was seen as the enemy and yet there was this immense love and nostalgia for the land, homes and people that the refugees left behind. Speaking about his father’s reaction to Partition, Singh spoke of the pervasive silence of the generation that lived through the traumatic event.
“I think it was so hard to talk about that they stopped talking about it altogether. It made me understand what they closed down to survive this trauma,” she shared.
Taang weaves together the public history of nations and personal memory to tell his story. Speaking about weaving the two threads into the documentary, she said: “It was a huge challenge and that’s why the film took so long. I was also going through the loss of losing my father. I had been shooting at this great rate and had no idea that this was the last year of his life. After he died, I was unable to look at the material for almost two years.
However, after reviewing the footage, she realized the story was great, one that needed to be told. Bani said, “I realized the importance of this film because I realized that it was a story that even I had not fully understood. To understand the Division as a team that is divided. Hockey became my metaphor for understanding division, colonialism, imperialism. For me, it wasn’t just about the past, it was about creating a possible alternative future because we understood the past differently.”
Having worked on the Virasat-e-Khalsa Museum in Anandpur Sahib, intensive work on the history of Punjab provided a crucial framework for her documentary.
“In some ways, I feel like a lot of things in my life have prepared me for this project, [and] prepared me for this one chance,” she said of the experience. “I got to tell this very important story in a way that touches people’s hearts. It was a story that rang true for many families. I wanted every family [that has gone through this] to see in it a reflection of their own history. I feel that what this story has captured is a moment in our history as a nation in transition. That whole thing [hockey] the team reflects that.”
While the film explores our complicated relationship with the past, it also raises pertinent questions about identity, which has become a pressing issue in modern times.
“In some ways, my father and mother really knew who they were and carried that confidence with them,” she shares. “Actually, for me, the movie was too [about] I wanted to understand my parents better because they were very cosmopolitan and had a world view. I could never find them in the Punjab I visited, it seemed provincial compared to my parents. The moment I went to Lahore, I knew where they were from. I knew where that big worldview came from.”
“If you erase history, then your sense of self is also lost. The story is very much about the personal story, so I think that was the reason for me, why the narrative is so personal and so about the tapped canvas in which these lives played out,” she added.
The documentary was very well received by the audience. Screened at the New York Indian Film Festival earlier this year, the film has been screened in several locations, including Delhi, Kolkata and Kathmandu in Nepal.
“There was a standing ovation in Delhi,” recalls Bani. “I was very excited about that, but I also realized that they were protecting their own family members. It was a very collective feeling, which was beautiful. It was somehow even more emotional in Kolkata than in Delhi, but in a very different, silent way, they understood the pain.”