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Interview Punjabi

By erasing history, your sense of self will be lost too, says Bani Singh on her documentary Taangh

The documentary feature situates the personal story of hockey champion Grahanandan Singh within a larger historical canvas of the partition

Sukhpreet Kahlon

In 1948, the Indian hockey team won the gold medal at the London Olympics, creating a historic win. Despite the stupendous victory against the coloniser on its home turf, the win carried the weight of a divided nation and the trauma that would haunt the generation affected by the unprecedented violence of the Partition of India. 

Bani Singh’s documentary feature Taangh (Longing) delves into this tumultuous moment in history, as she excavates the life of her father Grahanandan Singh [or Nandy Singh as he is known], an Indian hockey champion who won two successive gold medals at the 1948 and 1952 Olympics. The film melds together the personal narrative within the larger canvas of historic events, in an attempt to understand this glorious moment in the life of Nandy Singh, within the context of a nation in turmoil.

Taangh review: Poignant homage to a father and the forgotten champions of India

In an exclusive chat with Cinestaan.com, the filmmaker spoke about how the film came about. She recalled, “When I began this project, I didn’t realise that it will become a film. It really began because [my father] had a stroke and he used to relax and go into a happier space when I would be picking on the memories of the 1948 [Olympic] gold. I thought that I’d write an article about it."

She continued, "The fact that India had defeated [its] colonial master one year after Independence was a big enough story. But then, in my conversations with him, I think quite by chance, I started speaking to him about his college and then when we started going deeper and looking at the hockey team. I could see that there was a historical importance to the story so I thought that this should become a film.”

Although the idea of making a film was not yet in place, Singh’s instinct was to get a proposal together to get a film crew to do it. With this in mind, she started recording the interviews as part of the research for the film.

“There were these two events in his life which were the most dramatic," she explained. "One was the [Olympic gold medal] and the other was the Partition and both these happened within one year of each other. Every effort was kept to talk about the gold and every effort was kept to put down the Partition. There is this complete schism there."

"You don’t want to talk about the trauma but you want to talk about an event so close to that and so linked to that," Bani said. "It was really the unravelling of this knot. I was like, possessed [and] wanted answers to questions that I didn’t even know at the time. For me, it was also finally trying to understand what was referred to but never really clearly described and the opportunity to go there."

The creation of Pakistan was itself an odd phenomena, wherein the newly created country was seen as the enemy and yet, there was this tremendous love and nostalgia for the land, homes and people that the refugees left behind. Speaking about her father’s response to the partition, Singh talked about the pervasive silence of the generation that experienced the traumatic event.

“I think it was so difficult to talk about that they stopped talking about it altogether. It made me understand what all they had shut down in order to live past that trauma," she shared.

Taangh straddles public history of the nations and personal memory to tell its story. Talking about weaving both these strands in the documentary, she said, “That was a huge challenge and that’s why the film took so long. I was also going through the loss of having lost my father. I had shot at this terrific speed and I had no idea that it was the last year of his life. After he passed away, I couldn’t look at the material for almost two years.”

However, after taking stock of the footage, she realised that the story was a formidable one, one that needed to be told. Bani stated, “I realised the importance of this film because I realised that it is a story that even I had not fully comprehended. To understand Partition as one team being divided. Hockey became my metaphor to understand Partition, colonialism, imperialism. For me, it was not just about the past, but about creating a possible alternate future because we understood the past differently."

Having worked on the Virasat-e-Khalsa Museum in Anandpur Sahib, the intensive work on the history of Punjab provided a crucial framework for her documentary.

“In some ways, I feel a lot of things in my life 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 it reaches people truly in their hearts. This was a story that was true of many families. I wanted every family [that has gone through this] to see a reflection of their own story in it. I feel what this story captured is a moment in our history of the nation in transition. That whole [hockey] team reflects that."

While the film investigates our complex relationship to the past, it also raises pertinent questions about identity, which has become a pressing issue in contemporary times.

“In some ways, my father and mother really knew who they were and they carried that confidence with them," she shared. "In fact, for me, the film was also [about] wanting to understand my parents better because they were very cosmopolitan and they had a worldview. I could never locate them in the Punjab that I visited, it seemed provincial compared to my parents. The minute I went to Lahore, I knew where they were from. I knew where that large worldview was coming from.” 

“If you erase history then your sense of self will be lost as well. History is too connected to the personal story, so I think that was the reason for me why the narrative is so personal and so about the overhearing canvas that these lives played out in,” she added. 

The documentary has been received very well by audiences. Screened at the New York Indian Film Festival earlier this year, the film has been shown in several places including Delhi, Kolkata and Kathmandu in Nepal.

“In Delhi, there was a standing ovation," Bani remembered. "I was very moved by that, but I also understood that they were standing up for the members in their own family. It was a very collective feeling which was beautiful. In Kolkata, it was somehow even more emotional than in Delhi, but in a very different, silent way, they understood the pain.”