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Documentary on basketball player Satnam Singh Bhamara scores a slam dunk or two despite its clichés

‘One in a Billion’ is a chronicle of the sportsman’s tough journey from Ludhiana to recruitment by the prestigious National Basketball Association.

“My father told me, Satnam, you have only three, study and go sleep,” recalls a seven-foot two-inch sportsman in a village in Punjab’s Ludhiana district.

Satnam Singh Bhamara more than fulfilled his father’s wishes. Easily the most famous resident of Ballo Ke (population 800), Bhamara was the first Indian player to be drafted into the National Basketball Association in the United States of America in 2015. The Netflix documentary One in a Billion, despite its clichés and problems, is an absorbing chronicle of Bhamara’s remarkable journey.

‘One in a Billion’.

The 69-minute film opens with a moving sequence of Bhamara visiting his village after a gap of several years. He had been drafted into the Dallas Mavericks team and had returned home a hero. We hear from the basketball player, his father, and his neighbours in “Indian” (you’d think someone would bother checking this stuff before putting it in to the documentary but alas, no).

At this point, Roman Gackowski’s documentary is still in its infancy, and you hope that this might be one of those white-saviour films with an Indian protagonist that will avoid the usual hyperbole.

That hope is short-lived as an assortment of NBA officials, including commissioner Adam Silver, sound very excited about “a huge untapped market”, “a burgeoning middle class” and “talent pool”. Coaching staff, officials and team owners Mark Cuban and Vivek Ranadive talk up Bhamara as the basketball god’s gift to Indian civilisation and speak of him as an Indian equivalent of China’s Yao Ming, carrying a billion hopes on his shoulders.

The comparison is erroneous. Ming was born in Shanghai to basketball players and played the sport throughout his formative years. Bhamara was born in 1995 in Ballo Ke to a farmer and a housewife, and discovered the sport only when he was 14 years old. Ming played Chinese professional basketball since he was 17 before being signed up by the NBA’s Houston Rockets at 22. Satnam trained at the IMG Reliance academy for five years before he was picked up by Dallas Mavericks, and he couldn’t speak proper English until he was 17.

Crashing the boards

One in a Billion is Bhamara’s story, no matter what spin is applied on it. It is the journey of an amazing individual whose inner fire not only saw him beat the odds and barriers but absolutely dunk them. The documentary is rescued by Satnam’s candidness and his story, with his five-year stint at IMG Reliance’s academy in Florida accounting for a majority of the narrative.

Bhamara’s struggle is real, and Indian basketball journalist Karan Madhok is a voice of sanity amidst the cheerleading. Madhok traces the challenges faced by Indian basketball players and acts as a bridge between Bhamara and viewers who may not be familiar with the sport’s set-up in India.

There is little to show from Bhamara’s time at the Ludhiana Basketball Academy, apart from Teja Singh Dhaliwal, senior Vice President of Basketball Federation of India, who recalls the youngster’s “discovery”. This revelation is hilariously interspersed with footage that shows the academy’s hole-ridden roof. You begin to wonder about the game’s dismal state in India, given that the facility is quoted as one of the best in the country by Troy Justice, NBA’s senior director of international basketball operations.

Several moments hit home for viewers: 14-year old Bhamara being forced to play with a size-19 shoe sewn together from two other shoes (size 18 shoes were the largest available ones in India at the time), his loneliness during his first six months in the US, and his struggles with English for his first three years in Florida. The only words he could say at the time were, “Sorry, coach.”

The Punjabi sportsman’s lighthearted nature off court and his immense work ethic on it and in the gym make you want to root for him. Bhamara comes across as a shy, young man in a foreign land, far away from his family and coming to grips with linguistic and cultural barriers. When he first landed up in the US, he walked around with his head bowed.

Thankfully, Bhamara’s coaches at IMG Reliance offer an honest assessment of Bhamara as a “work in progress”. They also talk about a serious and dedicated individual who is willing to “run through a wall for you”. Even though most viewers will be aware of the conclusion, Bhamara’s tears after years of hard work and sacrifice culminating in a NBA draft pick cannot help but evoke a warm feeling for the big guy inside.

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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.


This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.