Football is not very popular as the subject of a film in any Indian language even today. But 1911 is going to be different. This film is based on an iconic 1911 football match set in pre-independence era. It details how a barefoot team won the IFA Shield against East Yorkshire Regiment, and how this victory did much more than win a football trophy, it triggered a dynamic and participatory nationalist movement in India.

Hot on the heels of the success of Batla House, the director-actor duo of Nikkhil Advani and John Abraham have put their heads together to work on a new film tentatively titled 1911 after the year to which this historic event belongs. Says the director, “I am committed to 1911, that is something I am going to start writing. I am making it with John (Abraham) next year. It will end by end of next year. 1911 is based on the football match between Mohun Bagan and (East) Yorkshire Regiment. It is one event that ignited the freedom movement in India. It is a script that John and his team have been working on for the last five years.” Mohan Bagan won against handicaps and this win was so demoralising for the reigning British that in the same year, they shifted their capital from Calcutta to Delhi!.

But 1911 is not an original film. A Bengali film Egaro, meaning “eleven” was made in 2011 to coincide with the century of that historic match. Directed by Arun Roy and produced by erstwhile sports journalist Anilava Chatterjee, it was a tribute to all those cricketers who not only won a almost lost match before it began and also changed the course of the British rule in India. Says producer Chatterjee, “Mohunbagan's triumph in 1911 was a very famous story, but I never thought of making any film out of this. I was associated with this film as a football match composer and director when it was planned. But the entire project was a complete failure as the producer backed out. Then I decided to produce the film. I knew the story and I was in a position to imagine the entire appeal of the story I spoke to two other co producers and they also agreed to produce the film.”

(Film still: Victory!)

Egaro had a slow release in the sense that there was no financial scope for advertising, marketing and promotion so the low-key release came as a surprise. But once the film got a theatrical release across Kolkata and West Bengal, it became a sleeper hit. Director Arun Roy said, “The boys were chosen with great care and were thoroughly trained by a skilled coach and also helped by the active initiative taken by international footballer and Arjun Award winner Prasun Banerjee. The boys had to report at four in the morning at a Howrah field and though there were three professional footballers in the acting cast, all of them were very disciplined and committed to their work for the film.”

The State Government waived the entertainment tax on the film which had repeat value as parents who watched the film, went back to fetch their kids and watched it with the kids. 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 from its British opponents, East Yorkshire Regiment on 29th July 1911. Egaro is a tribute to this win that marked its 100th year in 2011 and was also a celebration of the killer drive and the determined spirit of the eleven footballers of Mohan Bagan. Ten of them played barefoot wearing folded dhotis with just one wearing boots. The film however, shows the players barefoot but wearing football shorts.

This win marks the consolidation of the freedom struggle that gained so much in terms of both momentum and power that the British administration felt threatened by the united solidarity of the entire East and shifted its capital from Calcutta to Delhi on December 12 the same year. How did this happen? Egaro tells you the story in the form of a fictionalized feature film.

Says Chatterjee, “Before starting to shoot, I deputed a coach for the actors as most of them were not professional players. I always tried to show realistically because previous football scenes in different popular Bengali films were unreal. but the biggest problem was the scorching sun. The schedule began on 16th April 2010 and you can imagine the heat during that time. The players playing with bare feet found it difficult to run on the ground which was as hot as iron. Even the extras who were working as the spectators were looking for the shades during the shots. It was really a very tough situation.”

(Film still: The audience at the match)

For the foreign players, the team had to depend on casual foreigners arriving at Dum Dum airport on international flights, catching hold of them and requesting them to appear in their film. “It sounds hilarious today but at that time, we were very uncertain about whether we would be able to bag the right cast for the British characters including the players,” says director Roy.

A major portion of the film is dedicated to the painstaking preparation of the home team for the final match, trying to rise above insults, humiliations, verbal abuse and oppression of the British created to stop the team from playing the match. These are beautifully undercut with the plans by the revolutionaries to eliminate Hadley. Sudhir Chatterjee (Chandan Bhattacharjee) for example, is suspended from his college where he is a professor because he continues to play despite being an employee in a British college. Abhilash (Ronodip Bose) the striker who strikes one of the two goals in the 2:1 win is trapped between his duty towards the orphaned Bina and his commitment to the match. Nagendra’s belief that the match is not as important as the underground movement changes when he inadvertently listens to a conversation at a roadside stall selling fried fritters where the other two customers express their conviction about the team spirit being a part of the freedom struggle and not just a match to be won.

(Film still: The Yorkshire Team)

The practice sessions filled with the captain Shibdas Bhaduri (Hirak Das) conditioning his team to play in the rains by pouring water on his terrace, or, trying new strategies, chalking out plans and announcing that the team will go ahead even if one or two players harbouring second thoughts were to drop out just before the finals. The narrative is filled with dynamic action both in its revolutionary dimension and its playing dimension till the two become one and the match blends into the revolution beautifully. The revolution segment could have done better with some crisp editing, specially the scenes depicting the British police beating Mastermoshai and a missing revolutionary’s grandfather beaten to death in a prison cell.

“The entire football sequence was shot over eleven days including football match scenes and crowd sequences. We could not use too many top angle shots during the football shoot as the ground was not very impressive. Then we decided to chop large slices off it. We took lots of real football match footages apart from composed sequences,” Chatterjee sums up.”

One significant question: will John Abraham be fit enough to slip into the shoes of Sibnath Bhaduri who was a very young boy when he captained the Mohan Bagan team? The Hindi production 1911, is currently scheduled for a 2020 release. Then it is best left to the national audience that is not half as passionate about football the way Bengalis are.