I enjoyed the film a lot (it helped that I watched it in PVR's über-luxurious Gold Class, with its Lazy Boy chairs that can recline to 180 degrees – but more on that some other time). Thought it was very efficiently directed and edited, with some sharp characterisations and solidly executed action scenes. (Take a bow, Rob Miller.) I'm sure there are flaws but I'll have to go and see it a second time, critical faculties switched on, to make a list of them. There's a certain type of film that's easy to dissect once you've stepped out of the theatre and lost sight of how completely it held you while you were actually watching it. I think Chak De India is one of those films; though it's been almost universally liked in its first run, I wouldn’t be surprised if it suffers an eventual decline in reputation.
Okay, the notes (this is NOT a review, don't expect a plot summary):
- Going in, I was a bit wary about the film. I've written before about my ambivalence towards team sports: the constant rah-rahing about doing it for the country, the need to put group interests above individual interests at all times – things that go against the natural instinct for self-preservation that surfaces in an explosive situation (and there are so many such situations, on and off the field, in the politics-driven labyrinth of Indian sport). Also, I'm irritated by the automatic assumption that patriotism is a supreme virtue, so it was good that the film didn't overdo the jingoism act. The coach, Kabir Khan, does stress the need to be a Team Player, and makes a captain out of the girl who describes herself in terms of her national (rather than state) identity, but you can see that there’s a practical, sporting context to all this; we aren’t fed the self-important spiel about India being morally and culturally superior to the rest of the world. (This would have been difficult to do anyway in a movie about women struggling to assert themselves in the face of chauvinistic sports officials/boyfriends and traditional-bahu-demanding families.)
- It's interesting that a film which stresses the group dynamic is bookended by a story about the fall from grace and eventual redemption of an individual who has been shunned by an often-insensitive, unthinking society. That this individual is played by the country’s most popular actor (even though Shah Rukh’s superstar persona is never allowed to overwhelm the film) gives the viewer an immediate stake in his redemption.
I liked the shots of Kabir Khan and his mother framed in their doorway at the beginning (when they are condemned as Muslims who have betrayed the country and have to move out of their home and neighbourhood) and again at the end (when they return to acceptance and honour) – these reminded me of similar bookend shots in John Ford's The Searchers, which was also about the loss of home, honour and identity. I also liked the glimpses of “Khan” on the India jersey worn by Shah Rukh in the early scenes. (Incidentally SRK went to the same school as I did and the earliest issue of the school magazine I have is the one where he was in the 12th; he was captain of all the major sports teams and there’s a good action shot of him playing hockey on the school ground.)
- Yes, there are generalisations and some stereotyping, as Baradwaj points out in his review, but nothing that seriously affects the film's credibility. For instance, the depiction of the girl from Punjab as a robust, short-fused but golden-hearted type who proves invaluable in a match against an aggressive team (Argentina): this IS a bit lazy and amounts to indulging the audience's expectations, but you can’t exactly call it inauthentic. (Question: Is it credible that a member of the Punjabi women's hockey team might look and sound like Balbir Kaur? Answer: Yes.) It could just as easily be argued that the scene in which two roadside Romeos check out the Manipuri girls is a cliché/generalisation, as are the early scenes showing the irresponsible, knee-jerk reactions of the sports fan on the street, but these are also truths about the society we live in, and they add to the film’s effect.
Anyway, it’s equally important to acknowledge the clichés that Chak De manages to sidestep. How easy it would have been, for instance, to slightly expand the role of the team's chaperone (the stout, dark-complexioned lady who watches quietly from the sidelines during practice and with whom Kabir Khan shares dinner and conversation), have her played by a popular young actress and turn her into a love interest (or a therapist/confidante) for Kabir. Thankfully, the screen time that could have been thus wasted is given instead to the talented cast of unknown youngsters.
- I thought one of the best things about the film was Shilpa Shukla's very expressive performance as a character who doesn't express much emotion at all – the team's most experienced player, Bindiya Naik, seemingly driven by ego about her senior status, and constantly at odds with Kabir Khan, who tries to cut her down to size. Shukla's performance (and, to an extent, the we-know-each-other-very-well friction between Bindiya and Kabir) suggests still waters that run deep. It struck me that the world-weariness, the perpetually guarded look on her face, could be a stand-in for the faces of many Indian sportspersons over the years (especially outside cricket) – people who have had to contend with inefficient or apathetic management, lack of funds and facilities, years of compromising to get their five seconds in the limelight. (I don't know whether Shukla based her performance on any real-life personalities, but Bindiya Naik's studied indifference reminded me of some of the press photographs and TV footage I've seen of Dhanraj Pillay during controversial/strife-filled times.)
The scene where she makes a sexual proposition to Kabir Khan was quite telling. Treated differently, this could have been a standard, vixen-out-to-get-what-she-wants moment, but you get the impression here that Bindiya has been through this grind before, that she's had to make similar compromises in the past and has come to see it as part of a go-getting Indian sportswoman's life. In this context, it’s very effective that the film refuses to give her a back-story or to provide an emotional scene where her attitude is "explained". Early on, when she tries to turn the other girls against Kabir by spreading gossip about his past disgrace, you get a sense of someone who's simultaneously part of a corrupt system and an outsider who's been deeply wounded by it. Bindiya is a genuinely complex character by the standards of mainstream Hindi cinema.
- Very little sugar-coating at the end. Sure, we have drumrolls and the improbable triumph, but there’s no pretence that something has changed permanently for the better, that the protagonists' lives henceforth will be wine and roses. In his pep talk to the team just before the final, Kabir tells them that whatever else might happen in the rest of their lives, no one can take the next 70 minutes away from them. It's a statement laced with pragmatism and an understanding of the hard realities of these girls' lives. Despite Chak De's cheerful ending and the upbeat clips that play while the titles roll, it's possible to see that for most if not all of these girls, those 70 minutes probably will remain the high point of their lives by a long way; that nothing else that follows will be anywhere near as good. Has the Indian sports film grown up and smelled the coffee?