This blog contains material I wrote and posted on between the years 2005 and 2011 only. It does not contain any new material. For newer writing, please check my main blog (Bill the Butcher).

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Chak De! India : Review

Normally, I don’t watch Hindi films. I once told people I wouldn’t be caught dead watching a Bollywood film. And I kept my word. I wasn’t caught dead watching it. I was very much alive.
The reason I watched the film, in the first place, was all the gushing reviews – both word of mouth and on the web and in print – that I came across. Besides, it has been a sleeper hit; there was none of the usual pre-release hype of the type I absolutely detest; so I decided I had to have a look.
I decided; and then what? I found I couldn’t have a look. I couldn’t have a look because the damn film got to places like Kuwait before it got here – and it finally got here on Friday, just three weeks after it was released everywhere else.
Absolutely typical.
So I finally got around to seeing it only today.
OK, now the prelims are over, and I’ve finished explaining why I’ve watched it, let’s get to the review itself:

There is a genre of films about the sports underdog. The list of those films is long, and mostly originate in Hollywood, but I guess it’s time someone took a whack at it here. And they do.

The story: The final of the men’s hockey (that’s HOCKEY, as in “hockey”, damn it, not ICE hockey) world cup between India and Pakistan. Pakistan is leading by one goal with just seconds left to play, when India gets a penalty stroke. Kabir Khan (Shah Rukh Khan, in his first on-screen portrayal of a Muslim character), the Indian captain, decides to take the stroke himself. And fluffs it, losing the match in the process. As a Pakistani player, in a moment of camaraderie, hugs him in consolation, and the photo of him doing this is splashed all across the Indian papers (a clever touch, using front pages of real yellow rags like the Times of India) calling him a traitor and worse. He is finally forced even to move out of his own house while a man scribbles “Gaddar” (“Traitor”) on the wall in charcoal.
Cut to seven years later, when a women’s hockey team is being put together. There is just one applicant for the job that no one wants, that of the coach of a team that is bound to lose….Kabir Khan. By default, he gets the job.
What he gets is a team of scrapings from the bottom of the barrel, from all corners of the country, from Andhra Pradesh and Jharkhand, Punjab and Haryana, Maharashtra and the Railways, and even Manipur and Mizoram (nice to see people from this part of the country getting a chance to act in a mainstream movie). What he gets is a team of no-hopers, misfits, egotists and drama queens, who can’t even decide who gets which bunk without fighting among themselves, let alone act as a team.
Now of course you know what’s going to happen, without me needing to tell you. Except for “Rocky” (the first part, and I detest boxing) the underdog films always end with the victory of the underdog against all odds. So there was no surprise regarding the ending when I went to see the movie. I knew what was coming; what I wanted to see was how they went about presenting it.
The beginning is a disaster. The girls, on the field, are more intent on hitting out at each other than playing, and Khan is forced to bench several of them till they apologise to each other. In the end the anger against his training methods is so great that they sign a petition against him. It looks as if all’s over for the team, till the player’s suddenly and spectacularly bond at a MacDonald’s when a group of louts tries to harass them. They beat the living hell out of those men. Maybe not realistic, but entertaining all the same.
Meanwhile, the national selectors are fast losing interest in the team and are about to decide against sending it to the World Cup. Khan makes a desperate plea: he will have the girls play the national men’s team. If they at least draw, they will go to the World Cup. The selectors, many of whom are sleazeballs, want the team to lose. The men’s team walks all over them in the first half, leading three goals to none, but in the second they begin to TRY and they manage to put two back. Despite losing narrowly, the team is so impressive the entire men’s team and the spectators salute the girls and the selectors are forced to let them go to the World Cup in Australia after all.
As is usual in this type of film, they lose heavily in the first match (against Australia) before Kabir Khan, with his coaching and his pep talks, motivates them to claw their way back, till they finally reach the final, gathering sponsors and new kit on the way. And, of course, in the final, meeting Australia again, they win - as they would. You knew that all along.
And with the world cup in hand, they return to flowers and Kabir Khan, with his mother in tow, returns to the old house they had abandoned, with the same people who had reviled him earlier giving him an ovation…and a little kid scratches out the “traitor” written on the wall all those years ago. This scene was so maudlin it left a bad taste in the mouth.
All right, so that’s the story. There is much more to it, of course. There is the time when the girls are being registered at the hockey camp, when they’re all coming together, and the man at the desk is someone who has never heard of places like Mizoram and thinks Tamil and Telugu people are the same. There is the moment when Kabir Khan tells super-egotist Bindya Naik (the eminently kissable Shilpa Shukla) “There is room for just one bully in this team, and that’s me”. There are the repeated and very enjoyable digs at that national obsession and fifth-rated pseudo-sport, cricket (Kabir Khan calls a cricket bat wielding goon a eunuch, for instance). There are the girls goggling at the training facilities the Australians enjoy. There are the (really, this even moved me, and I’m a hardened cynic) bonding between the players at the end of the film, where even Komal Chaurasia (Chitrashi Rawat, who is a hockey player in real life) learns to pass the ball. There is Kabir Khan fingering his old silver medal and seeking personal vindication from a win. There is the delicious touch of irony when the team returns – the players are seen bargaining for the autorickshaw fare, as before. Just as it really happens in India.
The score is one jarring point – the music is loud and intrusive and more often than not unnecessary. At least there is no song and dance, one must be thankful for that. Also, while the on-field hockey action is beautifully shot and excellently portrayed, there is a loud yammering radio commentary in Hindi that is all but unendurable.
If this film had been made before the nineties, the players from the other teams (the Australians, British, and so on) would have been made to speak in Hindi and would have been portrayed as ignorant, conniving, evil racists. There’s none of that here; one even feels sorry for the Australian players after they break down and cry after their defeat in the final. Another plus!
I’m giving this film four stars, but really it deserves 4.25. I’m deducting half a star for the awful radio commentary and for the musical score. Another quarter of a star goes for that ridiculous last scene, where people still – after all these years – remember the old rancour, albeit this time to wash it away; Kabir Khan arrives pushing the same old scooter, and his mother returns too, looking not a day older. And the charcoal “traitor” is still there to be crossed out – after seven years. Bleh.
Kabir Khan’s story, incidentally, is based on the real life story of Mir Ranjan Negi, Indian goalkeeper in the hockey final of the 1982 Asian Games against Pakistan in which India lost 7-1. Negi was accused of taking bribes, his career ended, he was hounded for years – and he ultimately returned as women’s team coach. He was also technical adviser for this film.
Chak De! also deserves for not shying away from a brutal truth in India – the fact that an Indian Muslim is always forced to keep proving himself an Indian, the fact that he is not even allowed to make an honest mistake on the sports field without suspicion. This should ideally be studied in depth in another movie. Chak De! is a sports film; one can’t ask too much from it.
A superb effort, still. Infinitely better than “Lagaan,” the overblown Amir Khan film which was short-listed for the Oscar for best foreign movie a few years ago.

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