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Rahul Bose 'broke every contract' to juggle love of rugby with movies

Rahul Bose, pictured giving a coaching clinic to Kashmiri players in 2007, played for India's national team for over a decade despite his burgeoning film career. IRSHAD KHAN/AFP/Getty Images

Bollywood star Rahul Bose does not skip a beat as he weighs up how he juggled acting and playing the sport he loves. "All my contracts forbade me from playing rugby and I broke them all," he says. "I contravened every single contract from 1998 when I began to play for India, and before in 1994 I broke my nose -- I've done that four times -- so the film was pushed.

"And from 1994 to 2009 I must've done 24 films and what I'd do is, I would first look at the rugby calendar and I'd see which tournaments India was playing that year, invariably it would be one Sevens tournament and one 15s tournament. So then I would carve out three months or so -- a month of training, two weeks for the tournaments and then maybe a month in hospital getting stitches or whatever. And then I'd work the film schedule around the remaining nine and a half months."

The schedule did not always go to plan. Bose, a well-known actor of some 46 films but who also played rugby for India from 1998 through to 2009, on occasion had to slightly manipulate the truth to how bruises had appeared on his face.

"I'd say I fell down the stairs at my house," Bose tells ESPN. "And they'd say 'you haven't got stairs in your house', and so I'd tell them I was at someone else's house. And then they'd read the paper and see that I'd played a game yesterday, but I said they'd made a mistake and it was someone else, but they'd of course say they could prove it in a flash.

"I said look, you have an India rugby player who's acting in cinema, and there's no film actor who's played international rugby for his country. They'd say I was incorrigible, but everybody was proud."

Aged 50, the body creaks a little more these days. He's just about recovered from a torn meniscus suffered playing rugby, an injury exacerbated by walking up and down 17,000-feet mountains as he researched and filmed his latest movie, "Poorna".

It is a remarkable story of how 13-year-old Malavath Poorna became the youngest girl to ever climb Mount Everest. A film to inspire, an against-the-odds tale, but one that Bose sees as encompassing the three dominant parts of his life -- film, rugby and work with his charities, The Foundation and HEAL. The movie has been very well received, with awards thrust in Bose's direction -- it is a film he directed but also stars in -- and the journey took him to Dublin this week for the Indian Film Festival of Ireland, which "Poorna" opened.

The trip gave Bose a chance to breathe in the same air that George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, Samuel Beckett, W.B. Yates and James Joyce all did and indulge his passion for their literature, but also meet with World Rugby as he develops his wish to grow the game in India.

"There's sex, violence and a freedom to get as filthy as possible"

Rahul Bose on the allure of rugby

To understand Bose's love for rugby and his meeting with the sport's powerbrokers, you need to head back to the start.

Aged 14, Bose had been playing cricket at his Cathedral and John Connon School in Mumbai, when he got offered the chance to play rugby. "I loved rugby for all the wrong reasons... or maybe the right reasons, who can say?

"When someone says: 'Now you can go onto the field and get as dirty as possible, and you can get on to the field and beat up anybody and people clap. And now when you get off the field, and you're hurt or cut, the girls are going to love you for that'. It's a no-brainer. You're definitely going to play it -- there's sex, violence and a freedom to get as filthy as possible."

Three years on, he started to play for a local club, and those original passions had channelled into a more aesthetic appreciation of the game. "That was when I discovered the poetry in rugby, in my opinion it's one of the most poetic games -- in terms of the ebb and flow -- that has ever been invented."

And from there he, in his words, celebrated the "beauty of the game", as he embraced "the passion, the camaraderie and the idea that you are confronted with perhaps your worst fears as a man."

He tells intrigued interviewers these days that he learned more from rugby than he did his parents. They laugh, perhaps a little bemused, but he is deadly serious. "With parents you learn by osmosis, it just happens" but rugby taught him a variety of life lessons.

It emphasised to him he could not survive as an individualist in life, to embrace a team outlook. He understood that if he left his body on the field, then winning or losing is less important. "That's what I do in every aspect of my life; I shed my blood and I can walk away knowing I could not have done more."

He also learned the importance of maintaining composure when faced with adversity. "You have to play within the rules, while playing aggressively but it sets a beautiful template for you to start a movie, or a not-for-profit organisation, or any enterprise with a mixture of calm and aggression."

And then there are the friendships. "When strangers hurl themselves between you and imminent danger on your team, then you have to make those people your best friends in life. That grace, nobility and courage you never see in real life, it's only in films."

He went on to play for India in their first international match in 1998 and spent the next 11 years switching between scrum-half and the right wing -- "somewhere which is at odds with my politics", he says -- until stepping away from the international scene in 2009.

Since then he has continued to play club rugby but he is also focused on the bigger picture, which led him to meet World Rugby earlier in the week. He sat down with CEO Brett Gosper, head of development and international relations David Carrigy and media manager James Fitzgerald to talk about how they can grow the game back in India. Rough plans were drawn up, though they are being kept close to Bose's chest as he hopes to see them manifest into something more concrete in the next 12 months.

At present there are 55,000 or so playing the game in India, with 18,500 of those registered players and the other 36,500 playing more casual rugby and taking part in events like World Rugby's 'Get Into Rugby' programme. The national team is currently 77th in the men's rankings, and qualifying for a World Cup is still a pipedream.

But Bose sees potential. "My belief is to start small, do a fantastic job and then start growing as opposed to spreading yourselves thinly. We are strong in 10 areas of the country and we should intensify our work in those areas." Qualifying for the Olympics is a dream, and Bose has earmarked the 2040 Games as a realistic goal -- presuming Sevens is still included. There are no demands or hopes of overnight success, but one of sustainability to grow playing numbers and interest.

Indian rugby needs its "Poorna" moment. "When Poorna climbed Mt Everest, before she climbed it, there were only 8,000 applications for the schools for tribals, and there were 10,000 seats in the state," Bose says. "Once she climbed Everest, there were 67,000 applications for the same 10,000 seats. One success story becomes a lightning conductor for hope and resources."

He continues: "We need to create our own first wonder moment, and then a second inflection moment and then the sport will be on its own. So you need to create a moment, [through a] tournament, or a structure that catalyses interest. Then we look at the next step.

"There is an international and domestic component to it. As far as the Indian appeal, it has to be a pan-Indian appeal and something television is interested in. We are looking at all of that and how we can wind all that in.

"We're throwing the kitchen sink at it but it's in the early stages. I want to take small but definite steps towards but now that we've put timelines on it, we'd like to have it up and running by next September so we can unveil it in October.

"We're looking at everything across the world and where we can derive the best lessons from. It doesn't have to be one model, it can be little bits of different models."

He is already seeing the shift in social demographics playing the sport, fuelling his desire to take this another step further. He saw how it was a sport played by the "rich and affluent" in India from the 1960s to the 90s but now notes that 70 percent of the Indian women's team is made up of players from tribal backgrounds and the men's team with "farmers and tribals forming more than half the team. It's just changed so radically that it fills me with happiness and hope."

He has also seen how it can be the catalyst for people to change their fortunes and use it as a "passport to a better life". And herein the different parts of his life come together as one organic whole. The stories he has seen, the values of the game and the dream will one day be showcased on the silver screen.

"If there is one film I will direct in the next 20 years that we'll line up, it will be the ultimate sports film on rugby because we haven't made a great sports film on rugby."

As the plans to grow rugby in India develop, he will continue lining up on the right wing whenever he can fit it into his hectic schedule. Even if he can't, he'll still find a way to play. It is what he loves and he hopes thousands of others will find a similar passion. "It's a thrill to be 50 years old and playing with those who are 17 and sometimes kicking their arse."