TORONTO — With a new film coming out about his fight inside and outside the ring as a Sikh boxer in Ontario, Pardeep Singh Nagra says the issues he faced almost two decades ago are still plaguing the sport.
In theatres Friday, the drama “Tiger” is inspired by his experience being barred from competing in the 1999 national championships for refusing to shave his beard, a symbol of his faith.
The Ontario light-flyweight champ took his battle to the courts, arguing the Canadian Amateur Boxing Association rule prohibiting facial hair was discriminatory. He ultimately won the right to fight after filing a human rights complaint.
Prem Singh, who co-wrote the film with fellow Canadian filmmaker Michael Pugliese, plays Singh Nagra alongside Oscar-nominated actor Mickey Rourke as his coach. Alister Grierson of Australia directs the cast, which also includes Pugliese as a fellow boxer.
“The journey still has legs as we speak today,” said Singh Nagra, who is now executive director of the Sikh Heritage Museum of Canada, manager of the employment equity office of the Toronto District School Board, and serves on the board of directors with the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.
“Right now in November, the International Amateur Boxing Association is meeting as a cabinet and one of the things on the table is the beard issue,” he continued in a recent phone interview.
“We just managed to support the initiative to get the rules changed in England about six months ago … and we know other Sikh boxers in the U.S. and other places that are still struggling with this issue.”
The big screen version of Singh Nagra’s story is set in the United States, with the character of Pardeep fighting the American Boxing Commission over demands that he shave his beard for “health concerns.”
Asked what kept him going in his real-life battle, Singh Nagra likened human rights to a game you must play, rather than watch from the sidelines.
“It’s incumbent upon all of us as Canadians that, when and where we’re confronted with an act of discrimination, we stand up and challenge it,” said Singh Nagra, “because if you or I don’t, then people are adversely affected by it.”
Singh and Pugliese, who first met in acting class, said they’ve had their minds set on making the film since the case first hit the media.
For Mississauga, Ont.-based Singh, who grew up in a Sikh household, the story resonated deeply and presented a chance to play an Indo-Canadian character free of stereotypes. The story was also a chance to “educate people about Sikhism and how beautiful and peaceful this religion is,” said Pugliese, who lives in Vaughan, Ont.
Singh Nagra said he supported the filmmakers in any way he could and had just one request: that his character have no accent.
“That’s not who we are,” he said. ”We have a long, rich history here in Canada as a pioneering community. We’ve been settlers here for over 100 years. I asked that because I see myself as Canadian and I have fellow American friends who wear turbans and speak just like I do.”
Singh Nagra’s own boxing coach Dewith Frazer helped out, too, by training Singh for the film.
To get avid boxer Rourke onboard, they found out where he trained in Los Angeles and pitched him there.
Rourke didn’t just bring his knowledge of the sport to the table — he also used his own dog and wardrobe in the film, and added scars to his face and a fake glass eye.
“He was full of surprises,” said Pugliese. ”There’s a scene where he hits me in the face five or six times and I didn’t see that coming, and as an actor you love that kind of stuff.”
While the filmmakers feel Canada has come a long way when it comes to representation and inclusion, they note that the trailer and other promotional materials for the film have drawn hateful comments online.
“We’re getting comments from people saying, ‘I don’t want to see a movie on a Muslim,’” said Singh. ”I read those comments and I shake my head and I say, ‘Wow, this is really a misunderstood religion.’”