By Thomas Gerbasi
Pardeep Singh Nagra just wanted to fight. The practicing Sikh from Ontario didn’t ask for attention, didn’t want special treatment, just the opportunity to step through the ropes and try to fight his way to the Olympics.
Boxing officials in Canada didn’t want to grant him that opportunity, instead insisting that to fight, he would have to cut off his beard, something they deemed a safety hazard.
Nagra refused, kicking off a 1999 fight in which he took no punches, but that still took its toll on him.
This fight is the subject of the film “Tiger,” which is released in select theaters in New York and Los Angeles this Friday. For Canadian filmmakers (and stars of the film) Prem Singh and Michael Pugliese, telling Nagra’s story was a labor of love.
“The story made me open my eyes and allowed me to become less naïve and understand that everybody has their own path in life and we should allow others to believe what they want to believe in and let them live their life,” said Pugliese. “Sikhism is a very misunderstood religion and not many people understand why one chooses to wear a beard and a turban and how beautiful this faith really is. The more I started to learn more about myself and the religion, it really made me realize that this was bigger than us. And if we could use the platform of cinema to speak about a topic that is truly relevant but also means a lot to Prem, myself and the team, it’s worth the wait and it’s worth devoting those years to something if you truly believe in it.”
Mixing the factual events of Nagra’s battle with Canadian boxing authorities (even though the film is set in the States) along with the usual fictional add-ins like a love interest (Pretty Little Liars star Janel Parrish), a Hollywood name in Nagra’s corner (Mickey Rourke), and the heated rival and villain (Pugliese), boxing is the obvious backdrop of “Tiger,” but it’s more than that, as Singh brings you into the story of Nagra and keeps you there throughout. That’s easier said than done, but when Nagra gave the duo free reign to make the film they wanted to, it allowed them to do just that.
“He (Nagra) let the creators be creative, and that was a big risk for him,” said Singh. “He just told us, ‘Don’t make me look like an idiot and don’t give me an accent.’ (Laughs) But before it even goes to the public, we have to make sure he’s happy. We’re creating his life and you cannot delete this or pretend that this never happened. We had to make sure that we were doing him justice.”
So what was the final verdict? Nagra gives it two thumbs up.
“It’s still surreal,” he said of seeing his story on the silver screen. “Even watching the first time, I always see the movie as a responsibility, so I don’t have the privilege to sit back and say, ‘I’m great, the movie’s great, the world is great, have some popcorn and continue to celebrate life.’ And there’s always that anxiousness. It’s a movie on you now. It’s not a documentary where it’s more articulated in a complete, factual basis. So when the movie comes out, this is what’s going to – for lack of a better word – represent me in one way. I still pinch myself because I still don’t think it’s real and I don’t think I ever will. But I don’t want to get that close to saying I made it, we made it, it’s a great movie and life is done.”
That’s because Nagra’s story still resonates and wearing a beard is still an issue in some jurisdictions around the world, something Nagra hopes will be eradicated soon, with the film being a reminder of how ludicrous the rule was.
Of course that didn’t help Nagra at the time he was competing, even though he was able to make some noise on the local scene in Ontario.
“I already started competing provincially, then I got to the national championships and they were in BC and the Canadian Amateur Boxing Association used a loophole. I was boxing out of Ontario and I had the right in Ontario, and I was now in BC and they said it doesn’t necessarily apply to BC. So they disqualified me from even weighing in at the national championship.”
Nagra’s lawyers got him an injunction that would allow him to fight in the national championship, with officials then responding by taking his entire weight class out of the tournament. It was a crushing blow, but ultimately Nagra would get his shot in the 2000 national championship against two-time Olympian and ten-time national champ Domenic Filane Figliomeni.
Even that wasn’t easy for Nagra.
“I never invited friends or family to my matches because it was so racially charged,” he said. “In fact, my life was threatened at the national championship when I got disqualified there. We tried to keep it under wraps just because there was going to be a possible greater risk to my safety if it got out. Then I decided, for the first time, to invite some family and friends when I fought at the nationals. And before I even entered the ring, there was almost going to be a brawl with all that was going on. So even making it in was another battle.”
Figliomeni would emerge with the victory by a 7-3 tally, but Nagra was in the bout throughout, a badge of honor for a young man who had already won the biggest battle.
“The challenge I had was that it took me so long to get the opportunity to compete and then trying to excel,” he said. “There were times when I didn’t get matches that I was expecting because everything that was going on, and even when I did fight, when I fought Domenic, he was already a ten-time national champion, a two-time Olympian and I had less fights than he had national championships. But I held my own in there. And I felt that if I got a second chance the next day, it could have been different.”
It was a remarkable story, throwing plenty of pressure on Singh and Pugliese, but they nailed it, especially with boxing scenes that weren’t as over the top as they are in most fight films.
“It really has to do with the team that we surrounded ourselves with,” said Pugliese, who trained for the film at the Wild Card in Hollywood. “We had a phenomenal stunt choreographer, Mark De Allesandro, who did the Rocky movies and was Sylvester Stallone’s stunt double. We got him to come out and really help us get that right. And the sport aspect is the undertone of the story. It’s really about a boy becoming a man and having to stand up for his own beliefs. But because it was that boxing angle, we wanted to make sure we did it right.”
That goes down to Singh learning the craft, but not learning it so well that he looks like a world beater when in reality Nagra was still just an amateur.
“I trained with Pardeep’s actual coach, Dwight Fraser, in Toronto, and I tried to mimic Pardeep,” Singh said. “Even in the film, he’s still very green. Even though you have six months, a year of fighting experience, you have your own fighting style but you also have to expose those weaknesses you have as a fighter to show that authenticity. So even if I wasn’t fully ready, I felt like I was ready because this is how Pardeep would have been if he was going to the nationals. Remember, he was an amateur boxer. It was harder for Michael because he had to showcase a guy that’s been boxing since he was a little kid and was a national champion.”
It was a task worth undertaking and a tale worth telling. Most importantly, “Tiger” has a message that still resonates.
“I use the sports metaphor when it comes to issues of human rights,” Nagra said. “I say you can’t be on the sidelines, you have to be in the game. If you’re on the sidelines, if you’re a spectator, then you’re part of the problem. And if my story can inspire young people to stand up, to be an ally, then I think that’s phenomenal.”