"My father told me, 'Satnam, you have only three things: basketball, study, go sleep.' He said, 'Satnam, you have a lot of responsibility for everything. To the family, to the coaches, to the country.'
I said to myself: 'That's a lot. that's a lot.' "
And Satnam Singh Bhamara's booming voice trails off.
That's how "One in a Billion", the documentary on Satnam's journey from Ballo Ke in Punjab to the day he got drafted in the NBA, begins. It's a poignant opening to the movie -- Satnam speaking the not-so-perfect English is instantly charming.
But from there the movie takes a detour to become a marketing pitch for NBA. American men you have never heard of or seen before in your life, start to tell you about the huge marketing potential in India for NBA. Mention the burgeoning middle class in India, while cutting to massive traffic jams in a big city? Check. Mention the huge population and talent pool? Check. Talk about how Indians are fascinated by all things American? Check. Bring up the fact that India is an "untapped market" for a well packaged entertainment product? Check.
Ten minutes into it, you begin to wonder if it has more than NBA glorification - but thankfully, the story of the man who beat the odds soon takes over.
The 69-minute documentary, which has been released on Netflix in India, takes us behind the scenes of how one of the most remarkable sporting stories in the country unfolded. Those who followed Satnam's career would already know the crux of it. Born in a tiny village near Ludhiana, Satnam's incredible height (he was 5" 9' before he turned 10) was seen as a natural gift by some of the local basketball coaches. When he moved to Ludhiana's basketball academy, Satnam did not know the difference between basketball and volleyball. He could not find shoes his size, so he had a cobbler open up two smaller shoes and stitch them together. The facilities at the academy were poor.
The movie does not spend much time showing his initial struggles because, well, there is not much to show. There are some scripted lines for his former coaches, a few shots of the academy lying in tatters, and then Satnam and his father talk in Punjabi for a good few minutes with the subtitles merely saying "[speaking Indian]".
The majority of the movie is about the time he spent at the IMG Academy in Florida. Now this is the part where the enormity of the challenge that was facing Satnam begins to hit you hard. You realise that a kid with little formal education, a kid who left his village when he was 10 to take up a sport just because he was tall, has been thrust to the United States at 14 with barely any ability to speak English.
When Satnam talks about his initial days in the US -- "for six months, I was sad everyday" -- you begin to root for the guy to succeed, almost as a reflex, even though you know how the story ends. Satnam and his coaches go into great detail about the difficulties of training a gifted kid whose knowledge of English was limited to saying "sorry".
But at every stage, Satnam's willingness to learn and desire to succeed is highlighted. Learning math, making friends, working out every day like it's his first day, talking back to his coaches -- his time at the IMG Academy is a lesson to any aspiring young Indian wanting to make it big in sports. It's not easy. Not one bit.
The clincher of the documentary is, of course, his day at the NBA draft in October 2015. After finding an agency to help him turn professional after his stint at IMG, there are a few Jerry McGuire-esque sequences in the movie where his agents try to "sell" Satnam to the NBA. And with every passing sequence, Satnam's innocence and sincerity becomes more endearing.
Sitting in the car on the way to the draft, a nervous looking Satnam tells his team that Yao Ming opened the door for China and he is unsure if he can. His team says he already has. Satnam takes a moment or two, then smiles, gestures as if he is opening a door and says:
Just the lock, not the whole door, I have opened just the lock.
It is moments like this that make you understand how Satnam escaped his reality from India, to throw himself in the NBA spotlight -- all based on sheer hard work and sincerity. The ending sequences of the documentary are guaranteed to give goosebumps. Like Karan Madhok, popular basketball writer from India who features in the movie, puts it: "you begin to live vicariously through Satnam's dreams."
It might not be the greatest movie ever made in the history of sports documentaries, but "One in a Billion" is carried by the incredible story of this incredible kid.
Feature image source: OBB Films