Tuesday, September 09, 2014

The bittersweetness of being almost

This is not a review. It is not an attempt to critique or summarise a film that many have been talking about in different ways. But yes, it is a response of some kind, to a movie that I watched in an serendipitous matinee moment.

I found myself a completely willing participant, happy to be taken in by the melodramatic retelling of what is undoubtedly a motivational story, even without Bollywood's embellishments. I found myself choking at the appropriate junctures, shedding a tear and wringing my hands at others, smiling and cheering mentally when things went the right way for the protagonist. I found myself heaving a sigh of relief when the almost-moment yielded to complete victory.

All sports movies finally do this, and Mary Kom was no exception. When the national anthem was played in the movie to her final win, the entire auditorium stood sharing the pride of victory, much like the way they clapped when the Chak De girls scored their goals or the boys in Lagaan beat the villainous British at their own game.

But as I said at the beginning, this is really not about the movie. It's about the struggle and possibility of extreme disappointment felt by all those in the rarefied spaces of final rounds, in any sport, any game. It's about knowing that you're in an activity, a sphere, where every year older is a mark against selection, where the margins of success are so narrow, where the making of a champion depends on milliseconds and micro differences in speed or skill, where the second best is forgotten even faster than last weekend's meal.

You see, I'm one of those who's watched, all too often, the face of the child who gets so close to being there in the centre of the ring, a point away from winning, a stroke away from a championship, but who doesn't quite make it all the way. I've hoped and prayed with the team that all too often reaches the finals only to make second best. I've watched them walk off the field knowing they could have done it with just another push, just a little more speed, just a little more perseverance. I've empathized with the keenness of loss and experienced, second-hand, the moving away of the camera as the spotlight moves to those in first place, leaving the others in complete darkness. In sports, not winning means suffering repeated heartache and developing the ability to bounce back with amazing resilience. And given the high levels of effort that go into participating and staying inside the competitive space, any distance covered is remarkable, yet we rarely (publicly) acknowledge that.

For every Mary Kom, there are scores of young women (and men) who don't make it, who are not allowed to feel the pleasure of their play just because they play. They are nothing if they are not at the top, and we all know that there is room only for one in that position. We all make too much of the win, and for those who view and judge, the play becomes meaningless without it. Would Mary's story be any less worthwhile if she had lost that gold? Or, a couple of years later, had failed to make it to medal round? We idolise the one who reaches and ignore those who almost reach.

For those who are in the sport, while winning may be the ultimate validation, it is certainly not the only point of playing or participating. For the player, it's about playing, about being on the field, on court, in the ring, at the table. Every game/match is an end in itself. In India, sticking with sports calls for a huge amount of commitment to the process of play, for a willingness and ability to remain unaffected by the politics and greed that surround it. The very fact that someone has stayed inside long enough to make it to a visible platform is highly commendable. But unless their staying power has been medal-worthy, it is simply not acknowledged. We do need success stories that celebrate victory and achievement; they play an important motivational role and stoke our vicarious pride (not to mention jingoism, oops, sorry, national spirit). But we need to also allow for the nuanced emotional spaces in which the rest reside, those whose effort is not counted as success.

In business, you're not set aside because you haven't made the Fortune 500 (or 50) list. Even in creative fields, your work is judged on its own merit rather than exclusively on the basis of prizes and awards. But in sports, the winner truly takes it all. There is no second best, there is only loss that is remembered.