Their cinematic counterparts in the film, 'Chak De India', have captured public attention for the past several weeks. And while the 'Chak De' number has become a near national anthem (the film sees superstar Shah Rukh Khan coaching a national women's hockey team to victory), one can't help wanting to know what the real Indian women's hockey team is all about.
Despite coming fourth at the recent 6th Asia Cup Women's Hockey Championship in Hong Kong, the team is in high spirits. "We may have finished fourth in the championship but we still hold a good chance of qualifying for the Olympics when the qualifying tourneys are held in April and May 2008. If our screen counterparts could qualify for the Olympics, so can we. And with the movie, we have a lot of support from the people of our country," says Mamta Kharab, 27, captain of the national team.
Kharab, who hails from Givan village near Rohtak, Haryana, was a star in her own right at the 2002 Commonwealth Games. She was awarded an Arjuna Award a year later. Hockey has been a part of the Kharab household. Recollects the Arjuna awardee, "My sisters started playing hockey during their school days. My family and even the village were supportive. In fact, my teachers would often say that 'the Kharab sisters will certainly rule one day'."
The Kharab family wasn't wealthy, and the children had to make do with their schoolteacher father's meager salary. Fortunately, Mamta's success as the golden girl of Indian hockey has ensured that the family has finally been able to build a house of their own.
Delighted with 'Chak De...', Kharab can relate to the strategy adopted by the film's protagonist coach Kabir Khan - a man who drives his team towards mental discipline along with physical and technical expertise. The national team's co-coach, Dutchman Herman Kruis, too, had encouraged the players to become strong and positive. The first international coach of the Indian women's hockey team, Kruis had at the recent one-and-half-month training camp in Lucknow, encouraged the team to become "positive and goal oriented", explains Kharab. (The team is being coached by India's G.S. Bhangu - who looks after the technical aspects of the game - and Dutch coach Hermen Kruis - who takes care of the mental and emotional aspects.)
Marita Tirkey, 24, probably understands what the screen character, Soimoi Kerkatta of Jharkhand, experienced when she was inducted into the squad. Tirkey, who comes from Rengarih District in Jharkhand, admits that making it to the team has been a challenge. "We do not have facilities and since Jharkhand is a newly-carved state, a lot of things are still on the anvil for us. But our physical activities, folk games and folk dances make us adept at playing with hockey sticks. A number of people say that hockey comes naturally to us."
Tirkey draws inspiration from men's hockey player Dilip Tirkey, who has done their tribe proud - Tirkey captained the men's national squad for almost a decade. She is also grateful to her teachers. "We have good teachers in our government schools, who insist that children excel at sports as that is the only way to bring national prominence to our state," says Marita, who is a goal-keeper.
Interestingly, the team also has its fair share of the fiercely determined reel Balbir Kaur - Joydeep Kaur, Kirandeep Kaur, Surinder Kaur, Jasjeet Kaur and Rajwinder Kaur hail from Punjab and Haryana. This is a positive sign, considering that the region with the poorest sex ratio in the country has actually contributed to nearly half of the team strength.
Jasjeet and Rajwinder are cousins. Both women, now in their early 20s, lost their fathers when they were very young after which their grandfather, a champion of gender parity, encouraged the young girls to prove their mettle at hockey. "He would encourage us to play hockey... he wanted to prove to the village that the girls in his family are as good as the boys," recalls Jasjeet.
Family support has also seen India discover a centre forward in Surinder Kaur. Having grown up in Kureskshetra, Haryana - the same city as Jasjeet and Rajwinder - Surinder's early days were of tremendous financial struggle: Her parents were daily wage laborers. Today, their efforts have paid off; their daughter is on the national team and the family now owns a dairy and five acres of land.
Of course, the girls say they owe it all to their coach "Baldev sir", as they call him (Baldev Singh is an Assistant Director at the Haryana Sports Department and a coach at the women's hockey nursery in Shahabad, Haryana.) "Whatever we are today, it's because of Baldev sir," they say.
What's in store in the future for these girls? Those who have made it to the nationals want to continue playing hockey, although they know that there isn't much scope for them to continue for a long time. Says Kharab, "Already girls from our state find it difficult to continue after their school and college level. Once married, it becomes really difficult to manage between the family and games."
To keep up the level of their game, the women's team has to sweat it out or bear the consequences: The stipend given to the players and other support staff is performance-based. "We cut short the stipend if the performance of an individual on the team slips. One has to perform well to get the money," admits Amrit Bose, Secretary, Indian Women's Hockey Federation (IWHF).
Their result at the Hong Kong Championship notwithstanding, Bose is optimistic about the team's chances of qualifying for the Olympics and is of the opinion that the performance of Indian women hockey during the last five years has been tremendous. "The IWHF has chalked out a certain strategy for this, and I am happy that everything is going according to plan," said Bose.