Even as Bigil has reportedly been breaking records at the box office, a group of intrepid women who inspired the Vijay blockbuster continues to languish on the fringes – unsung and unrewarded.
If you have watched Bigil, you would be left with no doubt that the Tamil actor Vijay’s latest movie was inspired by the heroic triumph of the Tamil Nadu women in the 23rd edition of the senior national football championship in Cuttack on February 14, 2018.
The second half of the film was all about Tamil Nadu’s against-the-odds victory – with quite a few masala angles added to keep Vijay’s huge fan base enthralled. Although the back story of the TN team was worthy enough to be captured on celluloid, director Atlee decided to go for cinematic, emotional content.
For starters, Tamil Nadu’s triumph was a watershed moment because the state hadn’t won a senior national football title before in either sex. The men had lost two finals. And, it was the women’s first title in a major team sport. Why do women take up football in Tamil Nadu?
Tamil Nadu had never been as strong as Manipur, the team they defeated 2-1 in the final, in women’s football. With international players in almost every position, Manipur were as good as India’s national team. Prior to the national championship in Odisha, Manipur had won the title 18 times out of 22 editions.
Above all, the Tamil Nadu team not only defeated Manipur to lay their hands on the elusive trophy, but they also conquered poverty and prejudice. Almost every member of the victorious team was from an impoverished background. Star striker K. Indumathi’s father is a daily-wage labourer, as is goal-keeper V. Vinitha’s mother. Most of them are from rural backgrounds, the milieu that doesn’t encourage women to take up sports.
In an interview to Deccan Chronicle, M. Nandhini, captain of the victorious team, had then made a fervent plea to state and central governments to create jobs for women football players. She said:
But nothing much has changed for women football players in Tamil Nadu, although the state has added a junior national title and the Indian Women’s League to its kitty since the high point on Valentine’s Day in 2018. Apart from a couple of players being absorbed into the state police department, there were no state government jobs for others. The corporate world also remained unmoved. A three per cent reservation in state government jobs has not helped the players either, as medals in international competitions carry more weight in selection. Few in the state sports department know the importance of the title.
A private college honoured the team by awarding each member Rs 10,000. It was the only reward the team got upon their arrival in Chennai. That none of the important office-bearers of the Tamil Nadu Football Association turned up to welcome the champions in the airport was another story. The Tamil Nadu women may have rewritten the football history of the state, but their fate remains unchanged.
Few would have imagined then that Indumathi, Tamil Nadu’s talisman in Odisha with ten goals, would go on to pay a heavy price for her success. Although she subsequently cemented her place in the national team, red tape in the state police department would eventually tie her down in knots.
An egoistic official in charge of the police football team ensured that Indumathi wasn’t released to attend the national and state camps. The star forward wasn’t a part of the Tamil Nadu team at the nationals in 2019. Not surprisingly, Tamil Nadu made an exit in the semi-final, following a loss at the hands of Manipur. Tamil Nadu went to war without their crucial weapon. And, the result was predictable.
It is a pity that Indumathi is not able to put the boots on at the peak of her powers. Some people associated with the sport in Tamil Nadu even fear that she may not turn out for Tamil Nadu and India again.
M. Muruhuvendan, coach of the winning team in 2018, is unhappy that the achievement of his players hasn’t been recognised in Tamil Nadu. “I thought the victory would change the fortunes of my players. It hasn’t. Had the photograph of my team been shown at the end of Bigil, our achievement would have reached many people,” he added.
Amidst all the gloom, there is a glimmer of hope called S.M. Seeni Mohaideen. He is former Tamil Nadu Football Association president and current in-charge of the women’s wing. He is the prime mover behind Tamil Nadu’s recent success. The football enthusiast from Madurai doesn’t hesitate to dip into his pocket to spend for the team. He owns Sethu FC, the reigning Indian Women’s League champion and pays the college fees of many budding players. If not for his patronage, Tamil Nadu wouldn’t be doing as well as it has been now.
Despite negligible rewards, why do women take up football in Tamil Nadu? S. Mariyappan, Indumathi’s mentor at Cuddalore, told this writer after Tamil Nadu’s storming performance in 2018: “I have seen the transformative powers of football first-hand. It liberates women. It helps them conquer poverty. Football has also brought happiness to them.”
The last word should go to Raman Vijayan, former India player and an ardent promoter of Tamil Nadu football. He was over the moon after Tamil Nadu’s success in the 2018 senior national women’s championship, as he called it the Chak De moment of in the state’s football history. “I believe it is the beginning of a revolution in women’s football in our state,” he had said then.
The revolution hasn’t happened, and Vijayan is a disillusioned man now. “All players should have been given a state government job. It is disappointing that we haven’t realised the enormity of their achievement. Many players work as physical education teachers, struggling to make ends meet. Why should parents send their girls to play football if there is no future for winners? The players did our state proud, and we have failed to reciprocate,” he said.
Meanwhile, three teams that advanced to the final phase of the all India inter-university football tournament from the south zone on October 31 are from Tamil Nadu. Team India have found another Indumathi from Tamil Nadu, A. Karthika, in midfield. B. Mariammal, a sharpshooter from Namakkal, is getting ready to represent India at next year’s Fifa U-17 World Cup.