THE remarkable story behind one of the world’s most successful-ever sportsmen has been told on a new film produced by a Melton film-maker, writes sports editor Chris Harby.
The Conqueror charts the rise of legendary squash champion Jahangir Khan, the six-time World Open champion and 10-time British Open winner. Khan’s record almost defies belief, remaining unbeaten in competition between 1981 and 1986, a staggering sequence covering 555 consecutive matches.
But the making of the much-delayed production, filmed three decades ago by Stuart Sharp, and the story behind the camera is almost equally as staggering as the subject.
Stuart spent 12 years with Jahangir after a chance meeting in London in the late 1970s, having left his settled job as a chef and his home to follow a vivid dream. He drove his Cortina to the capital to learn a new trade as composer and film-maker as he had seen in the dream shortly after the death of his young son.
Stuart was sleeping rough in his car outside the Wembley Squash Centre when fate intervened: “One day I saw two Pakistanis knocking up on the great exhibition court. I was enthralled as I had never seen a ball hit with such power and precision before.
“I made a point of being there when they practised and eventually plucked up courage to speak to them and ask the coach, Rehmat Khan, for squash lessons. As I took the lessons and got to know Rehmat he told me the story of his pupil Jahangir.
“I confided in Rehmat my own dreams of becoming a film-maker and composer. Maybe, I thought, I would make a film about Jahangir, compose the music for it, write the script and narrate it myself. Rehmat loved the idea.”
Despite a complete lack of training in video production, Stuart set about his fantastic odyssey, which began with a chance letter he sent to the Pakistani president.
Stuart added: “Months later the President Zia Ul Haq asked his Embassy in London to find me and invited me to meet him in Lahore with a view to helping my project. I flew to Pakistan with Rehmat and Jahangir and found myself face-to-face with Pakistan’s most powerful figure. I felt I was still dreaming.
“He said ‘we are proud that an Englishman has had the vision to film our young star’ and instructed his aides to create a programme of two months filming in Pakistan wherever and whatever I wanted.”
Stuart imagined filming the squash wunderkind sprinting along a runway while an F16 fighter screamed by in take-off, an unlikely request which was granted by the president. Much to Stuart’s amazement, four F16 jets were indeed flown from Peshawar to the Masroor Air Base in Karachi especially for the project.
Stuart’s request to film Jahangir training in the Himalayas prompted more special arrangements from the all-powerful president.
He added: “They said ‘we will fly you all by C130 to our secret airbase in Gilgit in the Himalayas. From there you will go by Jeep to Naltar where we have special forces training at high altitude.’
“Years later when I showed the film of Jahangir training with F16 fighters everyone thought it was a camera trick!”
Following months of secret intense training, Stuart travelled with Jahangir and Rehmat to Toronto for what would be his big breakthrough tournament - the 1981 World Professional Championships.
Making his World Open debut, Jahangir was given little hope of making the final, particularly while nursing a shoulder injury. But he duly did so and fought back from a set down against reigning world champion Geoff Hunt to be crowned the youngest-ever World Open winner at 17.
Stuart travelled the world from championship to championship tracking the youngster’s swift rise, giving The Conqueror its unique and unseen footage of the great champion from 1979 to 1991.
But when Stuart offered the 100-plus hours of filming to the BBC, the corporation declined because of the large amount of footage and his own lack of editing experience.
Remarkably the tapes lay untouched in Stuart’s garage for 27 years until he retired in 2008. Having trained as a film editor and restorer and composer in the meantime, Stuart transferred the old magnetic tapes to a digital format.
He said: “I had a shock in that they had deteriorated very badly. They were almost uneditable. Nevertheless it was unfinished business and I now had the time to work through every frame and restore it to a point where I could work on it.
“It was three years of burning the midnight oil before I was in a position to edit it. In the meantime I had composed the soundtrack and written the script. The last part of the venture was narrating it myself.”
The film is being distributed by Melton-based SAQ International, and has been endorsed by Rehmat Khan who paid a visit to Melton to be re-united with Stuart.
While this marks the end of the Jahangir project, it is far from the end of Stuart’s story which will be published later this year.