Long before Praveen Kumar Sobti’s massive frame became entrenched in India’s cultural consciousness as the supernaturally strong Bheem in the iconic Mahabharata TV series in the late 80s, he was proving to be a vertical challenge for the organisers of national athletics camps during the 60s and 70s.
There were no beds big enough to fit the hammer throwers 6ft6 frame at the National Institute of Sports in Patiala, and officials would scurry to find extra planks to modify the bed frames to fit him. Back then, Sobti’s fame was not based on his yet-to-be-spotted acting chops, but for his ability to fling a hammer, much like another famed character from mythology, Thor.
Sobti, who won the hammer throw silver medal at the 1966 Commonwealth Games in Kingston, Jamaica, was a star in Asian athletics. His silver was a first for India in the field events at the Commonwealth Games, and only the second in athletics after Milkha Singh’s 440-yard gold in 1958. The same year, he won the discus gold and bronze in hammer throw at the Asian Games in Bangkok. Sobti went on to add another gold and silver in discus in successive Asian Games in 1970 Bangkok and 1974 Tehran. He competed in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City and Munich Games in 1972.
On Tuesday, Sobti died at the age of 74 following a cardiac arrest in New Delhi. His contemporaries remember him as a gentle giant and a talented athlete who could have even won an Olympic medal for India. But athletics was not Sobti’s only love. He was equally passionate about movies and would often regale national campers with his emulation of movie stars.
Hailing from a humble family in Sarhali Kalan village, 50km south of Amritsar, Sobti rose to prominence in athletics during his college days and soon joined the Border Security Force that supported his career.
“He was a champion athlete purely on the basis of his talent because those days we didn’t have much facilities,” says Olympian and former international shot putter Bahadur Singh, who knew Sobti closely. “He had medals in three successive Asian Games. He then played the role of Bheem and people liked him so much. As an athlete, as a person, he was such a jovial personality and would keep team members in high spirit.”
Singh, 76, won back-to-back Asian Games gold medals in Bangkok in 1978 and New Delhi in 1982 and silver at the Tehran Asiad in 1974.
Singh and Sobti graduated from Khalsa College in Amritsar and travelled together for international competitions.
“I was senior to him. He set an Inter-University record in 1966 and the same year he won gold medals at the Asian Games and Commonwealth Games,” said Singh, who was a national coach for over two decades. “It was big in Indian athletics. There was not much facility in terms of coaching, those times, or else he would have gone on to win an Olympic medal. He was so talented.”
Sobti had a big heart and Singh recalls how he arranged for the entire team’s accommodation in England before the 1977 Athletics World Championships in Düsseldorf, Germany. The federation had selected the team but had no money to finance the stay of athletes.
“We were asked to go to the UK and play some competition before the championships. But there was no proper arrangement so we refused. Praveen was standing there and he said he will arrange everything,” said Singh.
Legendary middle-distance runner Sriram Singh, who won five Asian Games medals in his storied career, also fondly remembered Sobti. “He was fun to be with and even though we were junior to him, he never made us feel that way. He dominated in domestic meets. He was a big draw because of his physique and athletic ability,” Sriram said.
By the early 80s, Sobti’s back started giving him trouble. After two surgeries, he began to realize that his athletic career was all but over. The 1978 Asian Games happened to be his last. His glittering, decade-long sporting career was soon to segue into an even more dazzling career in acting. He was fascinated by Dara Singh, another sportsperson who successfully carved out a name in movies making the most of his muscular build. He went to Mumbai and struggled for a few years, doing the odd henchman role before landing the part that would make him a fixture across millions of homes every Sunday morning.
He never forgot his athlete friends. Years later, when he was in Delhi, he came to the Nehru Stadium to watch the national championships.
“He was a star that time and we were proud to tell everyone that ‘Bheem’ is one of our own,” said former middle distance runner Gopal Saini.
“When he came to meet us, people thronged the stadium. ‘Bheem is coming, Bheem is coming here.’ It was crazy,” recalled Saini. “He was wearing colourful clothes, beads hung from his neck, and he carried the aura of a movie star. He sat with us and we spoke for a long time reliving old days.”
Saini, whose 3000m steeplechase national record stood for 37 years before Avinash Sable broke it last year, said that Sobti struggled to get a proper diet at national camps.
“We would get two pieces of meat with curry, or two pieces of paneer. That was not enough for us and you can imagine someone of Praveen’s size,” Saini said. “We would all then go out and spend our own money to get more eggs and other food.
“In national camps, we would feel like dwarfs in front of him. Praveen used to walk and talk like a movie star and became one. For us, he remained an athlete.”
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