Yankees coach George Steinbrenner famously decreed in 1973 that none of his players were allowed to grow facial hair beyond a mustache, a rule that still stands today. For most college and minor-league baseball players, a beard is forbidden. A few years back the biggest story in tennis wasn’t the talent at the ATP Cup finals, it was Roger Federer’s decision to stop shaving. And the PGA rulebook makes vague reference to a “neat appearance in personal grooming” but in 2012 Arnold Palmer complained outright that facial hair and golf don’t mix.
It’s that discrimination in sport that Pardeep Singh Nagra fought head-on after he was barred from competing in a national boxing match due to his facial hair, a mandatory element of his Sikh faith. Nagra won the court battle and became an international sensation, with a Trivial Pursuit question dedicated to him and a mention in several high school history textbooks. And now there’s a movie.
“I still have the whole goosebumps thing,” Nagra says via phone from his native Toronto. “It’s surreal that it happened, and it always will be, I think.”
The film, Tiger, stars Prem Singh as Nagra, Michael Pugliese as his fiercest opponent, and Mickey Rourke as his trainer. Singh and Pugliese wrote the screenplay and reportedly pitched the idea to Rourke at the gym.
The Alister Grierson-directed film shows Nagra (Singh) sabotaging a promising soccer career due to his hot temper. He then wanders into a boxing gym where trainer Frank Donovan (Rourke) offers him an outlet for all that anger. Nagra encounters envy and resentment among club members, and racism among officials.
“Here I am hanging out, thinking I’d love to be in the ring someday, but the first thing I hear is ‘you’re going to have to shave that’,” Nagra says. “So I said ‘I guess this is going to be my first fight: outside of the ring’.”
Nagra was the provincial flyweight champion and poised to compete nationally in the leadup to the 2000 Sydney Olympics when he was barred by Canadian Amateur Boxing Association due to their clean-shave rule. He received a last-minute court injunction that allowed him to compete, and in response CABA cancelled the entire weight class.
Nagra received death threats. “I’m not going to be naïve and say I wasn’t prepared: historically for us as a community . . . we have and will continue to go through issues like this.” He likens the discrimination he faced to that of Baltej Singh Dhillon’s: Dhillon was offered a job with the RCMP, provided he remove his turban, cut his hair and shave his beard. His victory also resulted in death threats. “In those days we didn’t have access to social media, now you can spew that racism to thousands,” Nagra notes.
Nagra is unruffled by the fact that his biography was nipped and tucked as necessary, or that the action and courtroom drama have been relocated from Canada to the U.S. “For me, the crux of it is I don’t want to define somebody’s inspiration,” he says. “To go through the whole process of taking a script forward – from idea to concept to putting it on paper and promoting it – I didn’t want to define that.”
He also had “no interest” in being on set and saying “I don’t talk like that” or “I don’t dress like that.” The story is a powerful one, and in an age of #HollywoodSoWhite it offers a rare opportunity for diversity on the big screen, he says. “We need more inclusive, diverse and accurate stories of different backgrounds. It happens to be about me, but to have a Sikh lead character in a Hollywood film is a huge step for the industry, and the community as well. Let’s hope it’s the start of something.”
Now an executive director with the Sikh Heritage Museum of Canada and Manager of Employment Equity with the Toronto School Board, as well as a public and motivational speaker, Nagra continues to lobby for the right of boxers to compete in countries where beards are still banned.
He ran marathons for 14 years but is “most at home” in the boxing gym. “My body, mind and soul and never too far from there.”
He credits his competitive streak with his tenacity in the ring and in the courtroom. “You have to be in the game, you can’t be on the sidelines because then you’re not part of the solution,” he says. “If I didn’t step up, somebody else was going to have to step up one day. Why not me?”