Wednesday, August 15, 2007
Chak de India: Review
Last night mom and I went to one of the local multiplexs to see this year's I-day film, Chak de India, starring Bollywood king Shah Rukh Khan. It's a rare Bollywood offering, a movie that's entirely about sports, and doesn't feature a love story, or any song and dance routines.
Here's the plot outline. Kabir Khan (played by Bollywood veteran Shah Rukh Khan), a disgraced captain of the Indian hockey team (note, in India hockey means field hockey. You think they have ice here? Geez!), is hired to coach the Indian Women's Hockey team, to send them to the World Cup in Australia. The National Hockey Association doesn't really care about the lota-belan-waali team (best translated as "the pots-and-pans" team, referring to women and the kitchen), but needs a coach and Khan appears. In three months he whips up the fractious lot into a team that actually works together, surmounts their egos and regionalism, and despite incredible odds, heads to the World Cup, to let Khan turn his shame (he's called a traitor because of allegations that he, a Muslim, collaborated with the Pakistani team to make India lose) into pride.
It's definitely I-day stuff: lots of bhai-bhai, or rather behan-behan (better still, didi-didi) stuff, national unity, team-spirit, working together. I went in a cynical frame of mind, and nothing gets my cynical juices flowing as the mix of Bollywood and nationalism, which almost always turns into jingoism. Those cynical juices labored hard, but ultimately, they were washed away by Shimit Amin's brilliant direction, the fantastic cinematography, the catchy soundtrack, the absolutely fantastic acting, both by SRK and the girls, the neat dialogue (occasionally witty, appropriately, without any recourse to farce), the characters (oh and the girls absolutely carry the movie!), and even the predictable yet charming sports-underdog plot and storyline.
Bollywood (heck, India!) is not known for subtlety. There was no doubt at all that the team would actually win the world cup. [Hey, it is Bollywood. This, therefore, doesn't count as a spoiler!] But the brilliance lies in achieving in viewers that state that is so elusive normally for Bollywood movies, the suspension of disbelief. As the World Cup progresses, one cannot help but get caught up in the drama. Each win elicits applause from the audience, there's a palpable excitement in the air, and tense suspense in the penalty shoot-out in the final. It's almost as if it were real, that India was actually in a World Cup final. The illusion is complete, and one emerges with a smile, wilfully and joyfully beguiled, feeling warm and fuzzy, with a good dose of patriotism coursing through the veins, Jana gana mana on one's lips.
What was most fascinating was the social commentary that runs through Chak De. First of all is the unabashed feminism, in a culture known for the subjugation of women. It's a story about a women's team after all. And the women here are from all over the country, small towns and villages, boisterious, confident, some overcoming a lot of opposition back home. No adarsh Hindu naris here, no doe-eyed, docile bahus, no finding fulfillment only in motherhood or widowhood. One of the characters actively opposes husband and bahuji (father-in-law), another refuses to be a trophy girlfriend/wife to the Vice Captain of the Indian Cricket Team (who pooh-poohs hockey as gulli-danda, that universal neighborhood alley game played with two pieces of wood). And in one hilarious scene, the girls beat up some boys (and their pals) who were "eve-teasing" (i.e. cat-calling) a couple of the team members, right in the middle of a MacDonald's franchise. Girl power!
There's the whole national unity theme, of the girls overcoming their regional divisions ("You're not playing for Chandigarh or Andhra Pradesh, but India! INDIA!") and linguistic barriers and stereotypes. And this larger national identity, of being Indians, rather than Muslims or Hindus or Maharashtrians or Haryanvis, has taken root in urban India (and perhaps even beyond) in the past decade. It's not just a pious sentiment repeated ad nauseam on Doordarshan anymore. It's real, and it's not going away(Pavan Varma argues this point very well in Being Indian). Racism is touched upon (the Manipuri girls are routinely mistaken for Chinese or South East Asian tourists, and called "guests" even though they're in their own country). And even tribal India is represented by two girls from Jharkhand, one of whom doesn't speak a lick of Hindi. And while it doesn't play out in the story, the members are also multi-religious. Hindu, Sikh, Muslim and Christian. (I guess even this film couldn't bring itself to credibly believe that a Parsi girl could play hockey!.) It's more than the usual superficial Bollywood bhai-bhai narrative. (That really contentious issue --the one that the country is still unable to address with any degree of honesty -- caste, is not touched.)
Surprisingly, a more live-wire issue -- the loyalty of Indian Muslims to India -- runs through the film in Kabir Khan's character. And he's unapologetically Muslim, greeting people with the salaam rather than the more standard namaste, referring to God as khuda, not bhagwan, and, in a dark moment, calling on God and quoting the Koran in Arabic.
Yet deeper than all of this, Chak de India echoes the tremendous self-confidence felt across the land. Yes, there's a touch of the adolescent fantasy, a deep longing for recognition by the world at large, represented in the film by the World Cup. Ham bhi kuch hain. We, too, are something. At one point, SRK gazes starry-eyed at the Indian flag being raised over the field in Melbourne in the mist of early dawn. Bas pehli bar ek goray ko tiranga fehratay hue dekh rahah hoon. "This is the first time I'm seeing a whitey fly the tricolor." But it's the fantasy of the adolescent stumbling head-on, awkwardly, yet inexorably, into adulthood. There is hope. One feels this, palpably, throughout the land. Yes the problems are deep and vast. But there is hope for change; that the freedom that was won at such cost six decades ago, might bear some real fruit in the lives of a billion people.
The title isn't simply a battle cry shouted on the hockey field, a cheerleading slogan to boost morale, urging the players to shuck the ball across the field. It's addressed to the nation at large.
Chak de, India.
Review in the New York Times.
Review 2 (For more reviews than you can shake a stick at, Google "chak de india review")