Didn’t think much of Dhan Dhana Dhan Goal; in fact I can’t remember the last time I found it so hard to sit through a film (no wait, that would be this one, which was even harder). However, the film was partly redeemed by the best scene involving a human nose since Woody Allen's Sleeper.
– John Abraham’s character Sunny Bhasin, a cocky young football star, has one of the most persuasive lines in the film, though it’s a line the film itself doesn’t pay adequate attention to. “I play football, I don’t perform in a circus,” he snaps when asked to join a Southall club comprising various potbellied men who kick a ball around to prove that their sense of community, their “Hindustaniyat”, is intact despite their having left Hindustan years ago. (Now this sense of community is under threat because moneyed people want to build an entertainment park or something such on their beloved club ground. To deflect these plans, they must rapidly get their act together, hire a washed-up former player as a coach and rise up the ranks of the British football league; hence the film.)
But as it turns out, Sunny's derisive “circus” is an apt description of this motley band of buffoons (who collectively go “YAYYY!” when they discover money sent by an anonymous benefactor and realise that there is one other person who believes in them), and the problem is that it remains an apt description despite their climb towards glory in the second half of the movie. Even the soppiest underdog-has-his-day film must reach for credibility at some point, but the transformation of these dawdlers to a league-topping side is never remotely believable.
At the heart of this story are some very simple-minded conceits: that the human spirit (in this case, the Hindustani spirit) can substitute for other deficiencies like basic incompetence (and potbellies) even in a sport as physically demanding as football; that sheer will to win (as if other teams aren’t equally determined) can override all the other factors that go into a sporting victory; that only the team we’re meant to be supporting responds to the thunderous pep talks delivered by its coach (inevitably a man with demons in his closet, trying to redeem himself) while the opposition is content to play supporting role on the big stage.
Now, to an extent, all inspirational sports movies have to engage with such simplifications. Even Chak De India, a much superior film to Goal, laboured at times to convince us that its team of underprivileged, faction-ridden Indian girls could win a world championship against the war-hardened, ruthlessly efficient Australians. But where Chak De succeeded was in the attention it paid to the staging of its sports sequences and in the behind-the-scenes training given to its actors, so that they at least looked like competent hockey players, and what we saw up there on the screen looked like a professional hockey match (it helped also that the climactic decider in that film was a tie-break, which is more about skill and strategy than brute force). In Goal, on the other hand, we never get a sense of the nuances of football, of strategies or manouevres – in fact, with some of the players in the Southall club, we never get the sense that they can do anything other than trot up to a ball and kick it at some point within the 0 to 180-degree arc in front of them. The result is akin to a slapstick National Lampoon feature (I don’t remember now whether there was a movie called National Lampoon’s Football Academy, though on this evidence there should have been) rather than to a rousing Remember the Titans-type film (which is what Goal was trying to be).
– It could still have been a very funny movie (unintentionally, that is) if it weren’t so loud, shrill and prolonged, and so reprehensibly manipulative in its depiction of racism. There’s the Aston Villa skinhead, a stand-in for the average Brit player who doesn’t want a south Asian on his team: he tells star player Sunny, “Go home, Paki.” (I’m still undecided whether Sunny gets offended by this because it’s a pejorative in general or because he doesn’t care to be mistaken for a Pakistani). There’s the Evil White Woman who wants to take over the Southall ground (personally, I thought she might put it to better use than we see the footballers doing) and who will eventually be forced to extend the lease, much the same way the British in Lagaan are forced to defer taxes for three years. The perpetually scheming, contemptuous look on this woman’s face and her frequent exclamations of “Shit!” when her diabolical plans are foiled are so overdone, it would be enough to make Lagaan’s Captain Russell break out into a hearty rendition of “Jana Gana Mana”, like the gora lad in Loins of Punjab Presents.
– When the whites do unsporting things on the field (e.g. faking a tumble to earn a penalty), they exchange meaningful looks, leer and perform high-fives – our cue to feel sorry for our persecuted desi heroes. Essentially, we’re in this strange zone where an Indian team is supposed to be competing on equal footing with tough foreigners, but at the same time we’re expected to shake our heads, cluck our tongues and feel wronged every time someone from the opposition shows a bit of the tough-guy spirit. It’s like the shameless, play-to-the-gallery scene in Lagaan where the little boy sent in as a runner for one of the players is caught backing up too far by the Brit bowler, who then runs him out: tears streaming down the kid’s face, expressions of disgust and betrayal on the faces of the villagers, and suddenly we aren’t playing a hard sport anymore, we’re just nurturing our victim mentality.
– But oh, just to balance things out, there’s a superfluous beach scene featuring skimpily dressed white women, thrown in to show us that goras can be put to some good use as well.
– I laughed out loud at the scene where Shaan (Arshad Warsi) says that Sunny’s playing for a British league team amounts to spitting in the plate that he’s eaten from (“jis thali se khaata hai, usi mein thookta hai”) – that’s a rich analogy coming from an Indian who voluntarily migrated to a foreign country and who has, by most accounts, had a good life there; he might want to rethink what the “thali” is in this case. I’m not getting into Tebbit Test territory here, but given the circumstances of these people’s lives, this “thali mein thook” business reeks of self-righteousness. As does Shaan’s remark, made in a different context, that “the British had all the guns and cannons, and yet we got them out of our country without even lifting a hand”. (Right, right, and then you missed them so much that you migrated to their country a couple of decades later.)
– Thankfully, Goal does manage to be funny (unintentionally, of course) in parts, notably in an ending that extracts every possible drop of dramatic tension from the fate of – hold your breath – John Abraham’s nose. That’s right: while a match is on, a doctor checks an X-Ray and discovers that Sunny has a hairline fracture in his proboscis! The opposition team finds out and decides to cash in! (Because they’re evil racist goras!) They elbow him in the nose – once, twice! (They never get penalised, the referee is a racist gora too!) The nose gets the worst of the climactic goal too, calamity looms and there is a heart-stopping moment where we don’t know whether the felled Sunny will open his eyes again (except that he’s John Abraham, and Bipasha Basu is waiting in the wings, and this is a feel-good film, so we really do know, don’t we?).
If Goal had known it was a comedy at heart, it might have had the good sense to end with a shot of Sunny’s long-suffering nose ascending to heaven while the ghosts of football heroes past stand about in the clouds tossing marigolds at it and chanting "We dig John's nose". But no, it chooses instead to give this lame-brained subplot all the tragic resonance of Amitabh blowing himself up along with the bridge at the end of Sholay. Will the nose live to sniff another day? Of course it will, and if this film does well with NRI communities all over the world (who see in it their own lifetime struggles to preserve “Hindustaniyat”), who nose, there’ll probably be a sequel too.
P.S. John Abraham is probably the best thing about the film: the role suits him and he does the brattish grin-and-squint thing better than most other actors. (Bipasha is hardly there: the highlight of her role is a scene where she looks deep into his eyes and seductively whispers "Asshole" - much the same thing the film is doing to its audience all along.)