When the multiplex boom got off the ground, they promised us we would get "different" movies, that is to say movies that broke new ground in India while remaining commercially viable, movies that enabled smaller and more idiosyncratic voices to be heard, movies that were a bit edgier than we were used to. Movies, we can say now -- after a few years of puerile sex comedies, snooty films entirely in English, and addled boys-with-toys films that were little more than a pastiche of numerous Hollywood films -- that amounted to little more than broken promises. Movies, that is to say, that were not like Chak De India at all. For make no mistake, there aren't too many films that have lived up to the promise and potential of the multiplex phenomenon, combining a thoroughly commercial film with a genre that has hitherto found few takers in India, and with a political ethic of inclusion that does not kow-tow to what we think the public is or is not ready for. What's that? A sports movie for adults, and not just the little boys in the middle-aged male audience? How odd (coming from any country's film industry, not just India's). How very very odd. And how very wonderful.
Kabir Khan (Shah Rukh Khan) is a celebrated forward in the Indian men's hockey team, until he messes up a penalty at crunch time towards the end of the World Cup final against Pakistan. His cup of woe overflows when a sensationalist press capitalizes on images of a Pakistani player shaking his hand, and before too long Khan is convicted in the court of public opinion as a match-fixer, a traitor, and of the worst kind -- the sort of Muslim Indian who bats -- uh, wields a stick -- for them. Khan is disgraced, ostracized and forced to leave his home, like the Deity Muhammad Iqbal once referred to as the Imam-e-Hind, Lord Ram. And the world hears no more of him for seven years.
Until he turns up to offer himself up as coach of the Indian women's hockey team, to an apathetic bunch of sports administrators so hidebound they appear not to be seated on their chairs so much as growths from it. The government's representatives have no choice but to accept Khan (he's the only candidate on offer), but they make it very clear they don't expect the new coach to, well, take his job (or his team) seriously. For them, women's hockey is a joke, and if it is starved of cash, sponsorships, institutional support, and sympathy, why that's just the natural state of affairs. Khan, naturally, has other ideas, and dreams of taking his disparate team -- one which roughly approximates the country's mind-boggling diversity -- to victory in the upcoming World Championships.
Such a jump, from the sublime of Ramayana parallels to the staleness of the Indian bureaucracy, could easily jar. That it does not speaks volumes about the ease with which writer Jaideep Sahni manages to move between multiple Indias, a talent evident in his previous outings, ranging from the small town bhaiyyas with stars in their eyes of Bunty aur Babli, to the Punjabi middle-class of Khosla Ka Ghosla, and the Mumbai underworld of Company (though the last-named, chronologically the first, is characterized by a concluding timidity that did not do Sahni's talent justice). It also speaks volumes about director Shimit Amin's comfort level with the material, a world removed from his somewhat promising-yet-overrated debut in Ab Tak Chappan (although I was hoping for more visual verve from Amin in Chak De India, one department in which his first outing scores over his latest one; similarly, the loud and unpleasant background score left a lot to be desired). In sum, rarely has recent Hindi cinema evoked the bureaucratic milieu to better effect, and every actor playing a babu shines in his (and one her) small role, as foil(s) to Khan and both his never-say-die spirit as well as his desperate quest to redeem himself.
The young women who comprise the Indian hockey team know all about desperation, and the result not only parallels the team coach's state of mind but also enables the film to use hockey as a liberating symbol for more than one player. Interestingly (and hearteningly) the film does not pretend that sexism is a problem confined to this or that social class, but makes clear that shackles, as well as hockey, are shared by some of these young women across social barriers (Vidya and Komal, for instance). Equally heartening is the film's refusal to rush to the other extreme, of passing judgment on an entire culture: the team includes a player (Gul) whose family sends her to training camp not reluctantly but with precisely the opposite expectation -- that of living up to her family's illustrious hockey tradition -- as well as others (Balbir, and even to an extent Komal) whose rustic elders are fairly supportive of their daughters playing hockey, not to mention others (such as Aaliya, Bindia, and Preeti) who have no "social" back-story at all, and are "merely" girls playing hockey, for personal reasons, for kicks, or for no reason at all -- possibly the most radical move of all.
The filmmakers are to be commended for remaining faithful to the logic of the script, and the hockey players are never mere props around Khan. Equally, however, Shah Rukh Khan is the emotional center of this film, and he does his role full justice in what is easily his most charismatic performance in years, and his most empathetic one since the likes of Kabhi Haan Kabhi Na and Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman. And if I did not much care for the "loud" moments the script gave him (the obligatory ones featuring a coach getting tough with his team), Khan more than makes up for it with multiple low-key moments featuring genuine nuance, feeling, and acting skill.
These quieter moments are the highlights of Shah Rukh Khan's fine performance, and simultaneously play on both his cocky persona and on the awareness that the persona works best when he plays an underdog -- one the audience wholeheartedly roots for. No scene stood out more than the one where Khan's assistant asks him why he keeps rubbing his old World Cup silver medal, a reminder of his disgrace. Khan wryly retorts (with impeccable timing) that he wishes to scrub the silver into gold, a reminder that victory for his team will not erase his feelings of hurt and betrayal. The film ends on such a note too, as Khan returns with his mother to his family home, defiantly looking out at the gawking neighbors. To the side, a child scrapes off graffitti sprayed seven years earlier, and Khan smiles, but it is not a smile of unqualified joy: for the word "ghaddar" can nevertheless be discerned. As a symbol of the irreparability of things, this remains the supreme cinematic image in the film, and for me a reminder that redemption is unattainable, and undone by traces of the fall.
One could criticize the filmmakers for "manufacturing" the players' squad from a bunch of stereotypes (the burly village Punjabi, the Haryanvi with a foul mouth, the mealy mouthed Soimoi from the jungles of Jharkand), but it would be disingenuous to make too much of this. For sports movies are almost by definition composed of stereotypes, recast into a contemporary fairy tale. And in fact Chak De India makes far more subversive use of stereotypes than many such films do, by taking some of the most hackneyed stereotypes and insisting on the centrality of those stereotyped to the national endeavor. A fairer criticism would be that the film's resolution of this exciting possibility is representationally tame, in that it focuses on the Delhi-Punjab-Haryana girls and ultimately all but completely sidelines the characters from (e.g.) Jharkand, Andhra Pradesh, Manipur and Mizoram who had initially been introduced with much fanfare, raising the specter of tokenism. But nothing can detract from the film's commitment to the notion that a woman does not need a marriage to be "completed", or that (albeit fleetingly and by implication) even a happy marriage might nevertheless leave personal (female) ambition and aspirations unsatisfied, not so much because it is antithetical to the latter but because it might have nothing to do with them. A marriage is a marriage: nothing more and nothing less. No other commercial Hindi film I am aware of has said as much.
The finest sports movies and books are about more than the sport or event represented, be it C.L.R. James' legendary Beyond a Boundary or Lagaan, both of which recognized the centrality of colonialism to the subaltern's sport. Chak De India doesn't achieve Lagaan's resonance, and is in the final analysis closer to being a "pure" sports film, but it would be a mistake to dismiss it as merely vivid (though it is wonderfully so, evoking audience participation more commonly associated with spectator sports). For Chak De India also insists on an inspiring fable, one of an Indian nationalism animated by the contributions of those all too often shunted to the national margins, most powerfully in our imaginations (the insight is vividly represented by the girls from Manipur and Mizoram, who are referred to as "mehmaan" in Delhi, a politeness that might be more alienating than overt hostility), and most pervasively when it comes to women. That makes for the best Independence Day Bollygift of all.