Chak De! India

Wow, it has been a long time since I posted hasn’t it?  Sadly, life and whatnot tend to get in the way at times, and that huge pile of movies that are either watched (but unreviewed) is actually threatening the to-watch pile.  So let’s get underway with my potential attempt at clearing the decks a little, with another of my irregular forays into Indian Cinema.  This one is a little different as it was recommended to me by a visitor, so it would be impolite of me not to actually review it.  But as ever, this is not your normal Bollywood feature, as it doesn’t have the big song and dance numbers, and whilst being that oft-ridiculed of genres that is the Sports movie, this one actually manages not just entertain, but has a little social commentary to boot!

The story of “Chak De! India” opens with an important Men’s Field Hockey Final, with India 1-0 down to that most bitter of enemies, Pakistan.  A last minute penalty stroke is given, and up steps the star forward, Kabir Khan (Shah Rukh Khan).  Sadly he misses it, and the game is lost.  However, an act of sportsmanship (shaking the hands of the victors) drives the Indian media into a frenzy, accusing him of throwing the game, and being in the pay of the Pakistani’s, basically being a traitor to his country.  This escalates, eventually driving both himself and his Mother away from their family home, and into hiding.  Seven years later, and he resurfaces, and is reluctantly given the job of coaching the Indian National Female Hockey team.  It is a strange request, as female sport is not even considered a worthwhile enterprise even by the National Federation.  The job is made more difficult as the squad is made up of 16 girls who are from all parts of India, different ethnicities, religions and social levels.  Not only that, but as they are all individually big fish in little ponds, they are hardly equipped to act like a team.  Can Kabir mould this rag tag assortment of women to not only work together as a team that are representing their country, but also defeat the sexist attitude of the National Federation, and maybe, just maybe find a way to redeem himself in the eyes of his Nation?

On the face of it, this just sounds like your normal underdog sports movie right?  And to some extent it is – you will all have seen similar films with such tropes as “The Coach With Disappointment In His Past” and “The No-Hopers Who Go On To Win”.   It won’t surprise you to hear that Kabir is a somewhat authoritarian coach, and that it is a big fight against all comers that really bonds them as a team.  It certainly does not score many marks for originality, but to be fair, it is all put together in a inoffensive way.  What must also be noted that whilst it is not technically a re-telling of a true life story (as say “As One” was), it does take some inspiration from the 2002 Commonwealth Games Indian Hockey Woman’s team, as well as the tale of Mir Ranjan Negi.  What is interesting is that the former inspired the film in concept, but the actual story of Negi was not known by the producers until the film was greenlit, and therefore had to be worked in, with Negi actually becoming a consultant.

Where the film works though, is that it successfully adds a whole societal element to the story.  Juggling not only Kabir’s story with the individual tales of the 16 girls is a difficult one, even in the extortionate running times allowed by Indian Cinema.  Whilst not all of them get a full storyline, it really is these girls that are the star of the show here.  There is a distinctly Indian bent to many of these subplots, whether it be the demands of the extended family, the pressures of having an ultra famous Cricketer as your fiancé, and of course the wider cultural and religious rivalries between these very different individuals.  That’s not to say that the film isn’t also able to deal with somewhat more generic issues, such as a couple of the top players having a ridiculous high opinion of themselves, or another with big anger management issues.  Not only do all these stories get decent screen time, the film never really goes into any kind of preachy mode, and the serious and the humour is well balanced.

It is a long film, although it doesn’t have any Bollywood big song and dance numbers, but I can honestly say I was entranced from beginning to end.  As I said before, all the storylines are explored, and none are given short shrift.  The actual Hockey action is also very well done, which is often the downfall of some of these Sports films.  The acting is excellent all round, with Khan particularly impressive, but all the girls both the established stars as well as some first time unknowns bring a vitality to proceedings.

What we have here is something that is very hackneyed, but put together in an utterly charming manner.  Not only that, but it asks some brave and interesting questions, and doesn’t shirk from giving one or two conclusions that might not be 100% socially acceptable.  The biggest credit though is the impact of the film – it not only raised the profile of a sport that must always hide under the shadow of Indian Cricket, but exposed the shortcomings of the National Hockey Federation, and actually created real change.  A feel good movie, with heart, that also can be a force for some change?  That makes it Highly Recommended.

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