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Tiger: A Film That Punches Back Against Prejudice

Boxer Pardeep Singh Nagra's story sheds light on what athletes from faith-based communities encounter.

“This isn’t about race or religion- it’s about health and safety.”

Pardeep Singh Nagra is a practicing Sikh and keeps a beard for religious observance. He is also a boxer who has been barred from competing.

This is the premise of Alister Grierson’s newest film, Tiger, which stars Prem Singh, Mickey Rourke, Janel Parrish and Michael Pugliese. It premiers Friday, November 30 in multiple cities across the USA and Canada.

TIGER Official Trailer (2018) Mickey Rourke, Drama Movie HD

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Tiger is based on the true story of the real Pardeep Singh Nagra, a Canadian boxer who was barred by the Canadian Amateur Boxing Association in the late 1990’s because of his beard.


Nagra fought the ban in court and managed to have the ruling overturned. But his diligence and perseverance came with a price. The film, brilliantly captures his inner turmoil, and his iron will to succeed.

He had a normal childhood that included participating in many sports, but he fell in love with boxing. His agility and tenacity made for a perfect combo to succeed within the sport. His quick-thinking and knowledge would also help him as he battled outside the ring to fight the discriminatory laws that banned him.

“I was dumbfounded by racist remarks and commentary,” Nagra said. “They kept saying that ‘this isn’t about race or religion, it’s about health and safety”.


(Courtesy of R3M Productions and Running Tiger Films)

 

In the film, the American Boxing Association bars Nagra’s character, played by Prem Singh, who co-wrote the film with Michael Pugliese. The boxing commission reasons that they must ensure the health and safety of all boxers. One isn’t entirely sure how a beard can injure another boxer, but that’s the point.


There is no actual intelligent or reasonable rationale for the ban. It is precisely what it seems: unjust and baseless.

“Those are all fake justifications,” Nagra said.

We know this is the case for headcovering bans in sports.

There is strong resistance to accommodation for people of color from marginalized communities.

There is no proof that a beard has ever injured another boxer in the ring. Even Nagra’s coach, Frank Donovan, played by former boxer Mickey Rourke, is opposed to such a blatantly racist rule. He pushes Nagra to fight harder and challenges him to grow as a person.



Nagra, Donovan and his relentless lawyer, played by Janel Parrish who becomes his love interest in the film, attend the first hearing with multiple dossiers of evidence showing that beards do not affect the outcome of a bout, nor are they dangerous.


“Conor McGregor just fought in a professional bout and his beard was way bigger than mine,” he said.

Pardeep Singh Nagra (Courtesy of R3M Productions and Running Tiger Films)

 

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This point is extremely important: professional boxers may sport beards while amateur boxers may not. Nagra offers me the exact wording: “In the event of a clinch, particles of hair can cause abrasions to the opponent’s cornea”.

If that’s the case, then arm hair could cause abrasions, eyebrows, etc. Then there is the excuse that beards cover bruises and could prevent an injury from being detected.


Nagra explains that this rule is not about safety. It is about a preferred aesthetic.

In the film, we see the commission going out of its way to ensure that he doesn’t complete.

“The crux of all this is discrimination,” Nagra said.

The commission is a set of white men with decision-making powers that is fiercely protective of their exclusionary vision. This was also Nagra’s experience in real life.


After his character qualifies for a national-level bout, he travels to the competition but is prevented from weighing in before the fight. He is granted an injunction. But in retaliation, the fictitious commision ends up cancelling his entire weight class from the competition, which makes Nagra feel as if he is destroying the opportunities of the other boxers.


What we see is that this is a man that has been left out on his own. The filmmakers capture an intense sense of frustration and sadness. It is at this time that we see Nagra’s character struggle. At one point he holds scissors to his chin ready to cut, face twisted in frustration and hurt, with huge tears his eyes.

(Courtesy of R3M Productions and Running Tiger Films)

 

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I recalled writing about Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir and her story of exclusion because of her headscarf. She told me how she often wondered about taking off the hijab, which would have allowed her to play basketball without any restrictions.

How many others will see this and empathize with that heart-wrenching scene; that specific moment where you question yourself, your identity, because of the oceans of systematic oppression attempting to drown you?

From the time he first sets foot into Donovan’s gym, Nagra’s character develops an intense rivalry with a former boxer, Brian Doyle, who is played by Michael Pugliese. We see jealousy, resentment and indifference towards a boxer trying to stand up for what he believes in, and to fight for equal access in the sport that he loves.



We see racism fester and boil over. We see what people of color endure every single day.

In real life, Pugliese and Singh are close friends who met in 2009 in an acting class. Singh told Pugliese about this story he had seen on TSN in Canada, and Pugliese was riveted.


“Here was this boxer, who was fighting to be normalized,” Pugliese said.

This was a story that they wanted to tell. It is the story of a sports underdog, with a human rights twist.

Although these two are like brothers in real life, they kept away from each other on set.



“The animosity was necessary to stay in character,” Pugliese adds. “I wanted to try to be a jerk, so the audience would root for Pardeep.”

(Courtesy of R3M Productions and Running Tiger Films)

 

The film highlights the racist abuse that Nagra experiences throughout this journey. He is told everything from the obscene “towel-head” to the usual “You don’t belong here!”

We see Nagra’s character seek solace from his family and his beautiful place of worship. He finds peace in his identity, despite outside forces attempting to destabilize him.

In the film, he receives little or no support from other boxers, trainers or coaches, save his own.



Nagra tells me that this was the case when he was in the prime of fighting the beard ban.

“I was completely isolated,” he said.

Nagra paid his own legal fees, but did receive some support from the Sikh community in his area. He never gave up. It wasn’t just about him. It was about justice.

“Sikhs, Muslims, Jews, Rastafarians … lots of different people have head coverings, a beard and stuff, and every single day, we are playing recreational sports,” he said. “And every single day, we are engaging with society in a lot of different contexts, and those issues of covering bruising, cuts, hair getting pulled, or any crazy idea they come with, they have no grounds.”

Singh and Pugliese are connecting with filmmakers in India to have the film dubbed into Punjabi, Hindi and Urdu. They want the message of Tiger to reach all over the world.



For their part, Singh and Pugliese feel strongly that their movie will inspire others.

“We want youth to feel comfortable with who they are, and inspire people to stand up for what they believe in” Pugliese says.

“I know this film follows a Sikh boxer but it is a universal message,” said Singh. “Every single person, whether you are brown or black, you’re Muslim, you’re Sikh, you will be able to relate to Pardeep’s fight. And we hope that when the audience sees this, they help someone and stand up for what they believe in.”


Tiger is playing in New York, Los Angeles, Toronto and Vancouver. It is a teaching moment for those that do not know anything about Sikhism, and those who might be unaware of the struggles that athletes from faith-based communities may encounter. This is a sports issue. It is also a human rights issue. It affects us all.

“When we can make enough noise, when we can challenge institutions and systems, we might have a chance,” Nagra says.


Shireen Ahmed is a writer, public speaker and sports activist who focuses on Muslim women and the intersections of racism and misogyny in sports.

She is part of the “Burn It All Down” feminist sports podcast team and her work has been published by numerous media outlets.

When she isn’t watching soccer, she drinks coffee as tool of resistance.

Shireen lives in the Greater Toronto Area and is currently working on her first book.