Jat Hero & Tiger dad
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On april 2, when the entire country was on the streets celebrating India's momentous World Cup victory, and when the Man of the Series, Yuvraj Singh, was splashing champagne on fans and teammates, his cellphone beeped. "I'm very proud. I hope there is a next life so that I can give back your childhood. Thank you for all that you have done for me. From today your strings are free (sic)."
The message was from his father Yograj Singh.
It's a scorching summer day in Chandigarh when we meet Singh. The venue is his Sector 17 petrol pump, where once flashed a life-size Yuvraj poster. Now, save the gold Honda City parked in the porch, there is no reminder of his famous son. This was Yuvraj's first car — a gift from his father after his 2000 Man of the Series performance in the Under-19 World Cup in Sri Lanka.
Singh is fit and sharp, and looks every inch a Punjabi film star. "For 30 years, I was a man on a mission. It was my dream to see my son win the World Cup for the country. It's only now that I can breathe," he says.
For Singh, India's World Cup victory is as much about him as his son. Yuvraj, he believes, was a way for him to live his dream. "I put everything I had in me — my desire for vengeance, my frustration, my dreams — into Yuvi. Years ago, someone played dirty and snatched my right to play for the country. But God sent Yuvi and today he has achieved my unfulfilled dream," he says.
It sounds like a perfect Bollywood potboiler, a script Salim-Javed would be proud of. Two friends from Chandigarh dreamt of playing together for the country. They were coach DP Azad's boys — Kapil Dev and Yograj Singh — who he wanted to groom as India's best pace attack. "The first time we sat in the plane we didn't know how to fasten the seat belt. When we got to know that we didn't have to pay for our meals at the hotel, we would order 20 jugs of juice and 10 plates of pakodas just because we could. I thought of Kaps as my brother," he says.
Kapil Dev went on to shine for India and was the only Indian captain to lift the World Cup till Mahendra Singh Dhoni repeated the feat in 2011. Except the 1981 Wellington Test where he took John Wright's wicket, Singh's cricketing career never really took off. Singh believes his best friend crushed his career. "After the New Zealand match, I was preparing for the series against England but I was dropped from the national team. When I asked selector Ravinder Chaddha why, he told me that the Captain didn't want me in the team," he says. "Kapil told me, apni apni kismet sab likhwa ke aate hain. Yograj Singh tum kya likhwa ke aaye ho? I told him, main naya muqaddar likhunga aur tumhare qadmon mein rakh doonga. Today, my son has made my words come true," he says.
It'll forever remain a mystery if Yuvraj chose cricket, or it became his destiny because his father ordained it. When he was growing up, skating was Yuvraj's first love. "I remember nine-year-old Yuvi running towards me with his long hair and a bunch of medals he had won. I don't know what happened to me but I pushed him inside the car and threw all his medals on the road. I started ranting that he had to play cricket and make my dream come true," he says.
Those were the dark days in Singh's life, when he even contemplated suicide.
"I put a gun in my mouth and was about to pull the trigger when my mother stopped me. When cricket was snatched from me, I lost all my zest for life," he says. That's when Yuvraj told his father, "Come on Dad, let's buy a cricket bat. I want to play for you." Years later, that boy would go on to smash six sixes in an over to England's Stuart Broad.
Singh was the quintessential Tiger Dad. The house was turned into a stadium — grass, lights, nets, and a bowling machine were set up. Young Yuvraj had to take close to 600 catches a day. For a boy who hadn't even toyed with a bat, Yuvraj suddenly had 150 bats and around 2,500 balls. The father was a man possessed. Yuvraj's training resembled a boot camp — six hours on the ground and four hours at home at night. He was on the ground at 5 am without fail. "He had no friends. The occasional movie that he saw was with me. He had no life. My wife, Shabnam, and my mother felt I was being inhuman to Yuvi but I wanted to make him the best in the world. I wanted him to be a mixture of Sir Viv Richards and Sir Garfield Sobers," says Yograj.
Singh's single-minded obsession soon took a toll not only on Yuvraj but also on their family life. Shabnam and he separated when Yuvraj was in his early teens. The boys, Yuvraj and Zorawar, went with their mother. The father and son didn't speak to each other for two years. "The coach in me had maybe started dominating the father in me. My son drifted away from me. I felt my dream had died again. But when he was dropped from the Indian side, Yuvraj came back into my life," he says.
This time, the stakes were different. Having tasted international success and then having lost it due to his nonchalance, Yuvraj too, wanted it back desperately. He got into spirituality and worked on his fitness and attitude. "My son became a man. He started talking to me like the Dalai Lama. The fire to play for the country grew stronger in him," he says.
While Yuvraj consolidated his career, Singh's popularity as an actor grew. He had taken up that career after the disappointment in cricket. He remembered the advice from a Punjabi actor, the late Virender, who had once tried to convince him to give acting a shot. His wife was against it but Yograj felt he had found his calling. Films like Batwara and Yaar Gariban Da in the early '80s started the bounty. Soon, Yograj discovered his USP — the Jat movies which toasted the rural ethos of Punjab. He became the Punjabi He-Man.
Films like Jatt Tey Zameen, Jor Jatt Da, Qurbani Jatt Di, Badla Jatti Da, Jatt Punjab Da, Jigra Jatt Da, Jatt Sucha Singh Surma, Jora Jutt and Lalkara Jatto Da made Singh a symbol of the macho Punjabi. He was equally at ease in a kurta laach serenading the Jattni, as he was on a Bullet with a gun in hand as he sets out to confront the zamindaara. His style of dialogue-delivery found many takers. In Mahaul Theek Hai, he played the bad-ass gangster, Shera Foreman, with the iconic line, "Bajaj hoye yaa jhahaaj, ek gal sun, Shera Foreman qatal toh ghat case nahin lenda. (Be it a Bajaj or a plane, Shera Foreman doesn't take up any case if it's less than murder)." In Anakh Jatti Di, his crowd-pleasing line was, "Jatt zaminan de kabze kachairiyan de kalam naal nahin hathyaaran naal lende ne (Jats don't go to courts to take possession of land, they do so with weapons)."
"I was the first villain in Punjabi films who wore jeans. I didn't see myself playing just a hero or a villain. I was more kicked about the characters I'd play ," he says.
Even as the homegrown industry is unabashedly wooing NRIs with films like Dharti, Munde UK De, Jee Aayan Nu, Singh is confident that the rural ethos will never go out of vogue in Punjabi cinema. "The culture is the same, the stories are the same and the Jat is the same. He might have spiked hair, the jeans might have replaced the kurta-pajama, he might have a BlackBerry, but he's always ready to fight for his zameen," he says.
Right now, his new family has all his attention. His second wife, Neena, is in the US with his 13-year-old son Victor and eight -year-old daughter Amarjot aka Annie. Annie wants to become a professional tennis player. "She wants to win the Wimbledon. I've told her that now that I'm over with Yuvi, I'll concentrate on you," he says. Last week, little Annie got a scolding because she started crying on the phone. "I told her to shut up, wipe her tears, compose herself and call me back. I want her to grow up as fearless as Yuvraj," he says.
His advice to Yuvraj when he decides to take the plunge? "I've told him to marry once his cricketing days are over. Look at Sachin Tendulkar, he has such a mature partner in Anjali. Once Yuvraj has kids, he should devote all his life to his family."
Every question eventually leads back to Yuvraj. "Yuvi is my heartbeat. God sent him for me." Pointing to the Honda City, he tells us with pride that his son installed the music system and high-voltage speakers. Does he still drive it? "Sometimes, when he is here. But now he has graduated to other cars." Like the Audi Q 5 he got as a gift after the World Cup.