IM Vijayan (TOI Photo)
Sometimes, while sifting through nostalgia that you always knew existed but didn’t know what to do with it, it just happens that you unearth a gem. In this season of re-runs, IM Vijayan is proving that old book with a new ending.
In these stay-at-home times, as established greats of Indian sport throw strange lockdown challenges at each other, here is a man enjoying his own revival without denting the kitchenware. Without doing much, you realise that ageing is a skill that’s not easily cultivated. It’s like they say in football, to spot the genius in a crowded penalty box, single out the one who’s not part of the rush. The ball always finds a way to meet him.
So, with the rare egalitarianism that social media algorithms can sometimes throw up, suddenly IM Vijayan is all over and with him, his hoary legend — largely un-recorded but looming large all the same. Millennials are learning, much to their astonishment, that a pre-internet hero actually existed; an utterly rakish one who was forged all by himself and not fashioned by the web. For a brief, very brief, period before Sachin Tendulkar made it standard practice in the 1990s, Vijayan was filling up stadiums on the dint of his name alone. Football-crazy Keralites would show up in truckloads just to see him play.
Today, everyone’s queueing up once again, saying they’d pay to watch him. It matters little that his play these days shows up in noisy, jerky Sevens videos, where at 51, he’s effortlessly bossing over men half his age.
On Wednesday, the All India Football Federation announced it was recommending Vijayan’s name for the Padma Shri. Six footballers — Sailen Manna (1971), Chuni Goswami (1983), PK Banerjee (1990), Bhaichung Bhutia (2008), Sunil Chhetri (2019) and Bembem Devi (2020) — have earlier won the award. As Tulsidas Balaram, the 1950s India and East Bengal icon and the third of the famous Chuni-PK triumvirate, continues to remain overlooked, for Vijayan, it is a somewhat belated but not too late move.
Genius was always a rarity in the Indian context, fewer men in constant public glare have worn it more lightly, almost casual to the point of indifference. Fewer, still, have been in less awe of it themselves perhaps. But Vijayan’s story is not just one of cultivated coolness, it is a starker one of the triumph of the individual, and a soaring one of how sport transcends unimaginable odds.
In a 2017 Outlook piece, he writes with disarming candour of his early struggle – till age 12, he had not known what it meant to be on a full stomach. “I have known hunger and poverty during my childhood days,” he says. His parents were daily-wagers – Vijayan lost his father to a work-related mishap when he was 12. He was the man of the house now. He had just discovered football and was soon gaining a reputation in the Sevens football circuit. “The Rs 30 or Rs 40 I got from each match, I would give to my mother,” he says in the article, implying how football proved an early way out. When he suddenly left to play professional football in Kolkata, leaving Kerala heartbroken and his team and employers, Kerala Police feeling betrayed, it was as he said, to make enough money to build a house back home because a permanent home was one thing he never had growing up.
Born into a poor Dalit family, Vijayan says, “I never felt casteism in social life, or in football. I only knew poverty.” Maybe because football offered him an early ticket out. Juggling the ball then and performing similar tricks in lockdown, would not be one for him. He’s been doing it since he was 12 and making some money from it.
Today, as he casually regards his seamless evolution from easy-going boy wonder to easier-going elder, it must be comforting to have Vijayan and his eternal cool in these times. It must be oddly satisfying even, because these are strange times too. As he re-emerges as modern India’s greatest footballer, also, possibly its most relevant, the wider arc and scope of Vijayan’s impact is his crossover story.
As the conversation over racism and prejudice over the skin of one’s colour becomes louder, there is Vijayan amidst this — dark as night, an impoverished childhood, non-English speaking. His was hardly the face that would launch a thousand products but there is perhaps no one more comfortable in his own skin than him. Maybe he’s carved out a comfortable space in the openness that Kerala society affords.
“In Kerala, they would say, “Karutha Muthu,” which meant Black Pearl. In Kolkata, they said ‘Kalo Hiran.’ But I feel that it didn’t come from a place of discrimination. Even when we watch the Spanish League on TV, and don’t know a player’s name but he is black, we say, “Arre, woh No 14 kala, kya player hai! (That black player in the No 14 shirt. What a player he is!)” I’m sure many fans in India would have referred to me in the same way too, I don’t think I would be offended. Maybe, it’s a way of recognising me by my skin colour. I have always been proud of my appearance, I know I stand alongside so many greats due to my skin colour, maybe that’s why it’s never been a problem for me. I hope you are able to understand this belief that I carry.”
So when does it begin to become racist? “When it is disparaging. When they say, ‘Ai Kaalu, idhar aa,’ or ‘Kya hai, oye Kaalu?!’ That’s when it is a problem. That’s when it makes me or anyone angry. Waise bhi, kyaa hai, yaar, yeh gora, kaala? Dil saaf hona chaihye, bas,” says the footballer whose looks have invariably got him roles to play villains in films in an industry that has yet to shake off casteism and stereotyping.
Here is a man whose IMDB profile is gaining greater heft than his Wikipedia footballing one. The recent Tamil moneyspinner, Bigil is ostensibly a film about football. Vijayan makes an appearance – but as a middling ‘rowdy’ who is bumped off before the interval. Typically, he laughs it off. “When they cast me in Bigil, everyone thought I would play (actor) Vijay’s father or at least the rival team’s coach. But I knew my part. Everyone was surprised when they saw my role but it’s okay, I’m thoroughly enjoying it.”
Reminded by that colleague, the more urbane Raman Vijayan plays a commentator in the film, Vijayan’s knowing guffaw grows louder. “You know my first film, Shantham in 2001, by Jayaraj sir, I was the hero. That won the National award. Whatever follows can never be matched, so I’m actually okay with it.”
You wonder about the much-feted current new age Malayalee cinema that liberally uses football as a metaphor – FC Barcelona shirts and references to Messi abound. Still, as the narratives straddle cosmopolitan aspirations and old-world Kerala ethos, there seems no room for Vijayan in it. “How many movies on football can you make in a year,” he reasons. “There was this one much-loved that broke all records. Sudani from Nigeria is close to every Keralites heart. That should stay.”
Then he adds, “Don’t worry, there’s a football movie with me in the works. This lockdown put a halt to it, we’ll resume soon. I play a football coach, my son is assistant coach and it’s got Pepe (Anthony Verghese of Angamaly Diaries fame) in it. Called Aanaparambile World Cup, think of it as my biopic. Wait for it.” As he signs off, you realise more than anyone, IM Vijayan deserves one.