African tadka in Bengali dal
The release of his new film is the perfect occasion for actor-director Parambrata Chatterjee to team up with veteran Nigerian football player and Kolkata resident Omolaja Olalekan to discuss Kolkata's fascination with the game
Like all true-blue Kolkata natives, Parambrata Chatterjee likes his football. That his latest film, Tiki-Taka, in which he plays dual role of actor and director is the second one to use the game as backdrop, is proof. Lorai: Play to Live was the story of an alcoholic coach who tries to take control of his team. Tiki-Taka, however, relies on humour, to speak of a bizarre but accepted practice of Nigerian footballers playing for several of Kolkata'a top football clubs, and becoming long-term Kolkata residents.
Omolaja Olalekan, football player
It is said that football came to India when the East India Company officers introduced it to members of the Indian army as a bonding exercise. Since Calcutta was the capital of the British colonial empire in India, it became the hub of the game, with the Calcutta Football Club being the first to be established in the country in 1872. Chatterjee says West Bengal's capital city is partial to teams from Latin America (hence the fixation with Lionel Messi) and the south of Europe. Messi, who has been the long time star player for Barcelona, incidentally is a big propagator of tiki-taka or the Spanish style of play characterised by short passing and maintaining possession.
The film Tiki- Taka, directed by Chatterjee (left) tells the story of a Senegalese citizen who comes to Kolkata and is mistaken for a football player
The film, which dropped on Zee5 last week, revolves around Senegalese Khelechi, played by African actor Emona Enabulu, who returns to India with a football full of narcotics to save his dying mother back home. He meets taxi driver Raju (Chatterjee), who sees an opportunity and using his nationality, gets him to play at one of the biggest matches the city has seen. "The Kolkata clubs have many Nigerian and South African players. Several of them have made Kolkata their home. So now, it's a Kolkata stereotype—when you walk past an African on the street, you think they must be there for a match. The movie plays on this stereotype," says Chatterjee, 40, last seen and liked as the genial policeman in Kahani and more recently, in Bulbul. Chatterjee is with this writer on a Zoom call, accompanied by veteran football player, Nigerian Omalaja Olalekan. They met when Chatterjee was making Lorai and was looking to work with a veteran player. They have been friends since, so, when Chatterjee needed an African actor in the commentary box for Tiki-Taka, he asked Omalaja to return to screen.
African actor Emona Enabulu plays the lead in Tiki-Taka, who gets mistaken as a football player
"When I was growing up, Omalaja was hugely famous in Kolkata. He was a big name, and part of what has inspired us to take up and love the sport," says Chatterjee of the veteran player, who started his career in Goa in the 1990s. "I went back to Nigeria in 1998, but returned to play for East Bengal in 2000. Then in 2007, I played for the team Mohamaddan. Since then, India has been my second home. Back then, the atmosphere was very welcoming. Most Nigerians have had a challenging upbringing, and it's in our culture to be the best we can be. The Indian clubs recognised this characteristic, and that's why we were most wanted," says Olalekan, who Chatterjee quickly adds has married a Bengali woman. Olalekan laughs, "Chatterjee is the perfect gentleman, on field and off it. Even acting under his direction was great. He passionately makes his corrections, and gives the person a chance to learn and improve." The player says the technique the film's title refers to is one he too employed back in the day. "In fact, I am the embodiment of tiki-taka. It's the perfect technique to do something unexpected. Not many practice it these days. But I feel the Indian youth is now getting seriously interested in football, and with this technique, anybody can be Ronaldo or Messi. They just need to polish their talent."
A still from the movie, which Chatterjee says is important in the times we live in, as it’s an Indian film with an African actor in the lead role
But Chatterjee claims, Kolkatans continue to be the biggest lovers of the sport anywhere in the country. "Before a phenomenon called Sourav Ganguly came along, the average Bengali was keen on cricket, but the fondness for football was way more." Olalekan agrees, "You can't compare the love Kolkata has for football with any other part of India. That's the reason I decided to settle here. Even though you hear about discrimination against Africans, and Parambrata has addressed that too in the movie, I have been fortunate. I may have faced discrimination elsewhere, but here, I have been loved and celebrated." For Chatterjee, it was important that the overarching theme be of joy and friendship. "In the times that we live in, it's special that an African is playing lead in an Indian movie. A therapist friend saw it, and said he has recommended it to many of his patients. I think sports is like literature. It has drama, skill and history." Olalekan agrees that it's an uplifting movie that we all need desperately right now.
He says he continues to coach during the football season, and "People can't believe I am 40+, and still play!"
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