A film with a sporting backdrop already has half its battle won, since it deals with the triumph of the human spirit; of underdogs who make it and of course redemption from a past failure. Chak De! India has all this and in that sense, like any other film of this type, is predictable with typical plot points. However, it is the other half of the battle to make an engaging film that takes you through those very predictable plot points film and script cliches and makes you feel good about them when they happen that determines whether the film works or not. Iqbal (2005) got it right earlier and now Chak De! India gets it pretty right too.
The film is inspired by ex-Indian goalkeeper Mir Ranjan Negi’s story. He was the goalie in the 1982 Asian Games when India lost 7-1 to Pakistan in the finals. It was Negi who got all the blame and faded into oblivion. He was accused of taking money from the Pakistanis to concede goals. Although unsubstantiated, the allegations ensured he never played for India again. People even asked if based on his first name Mir, Negi was a Muslim. Chak De! India is inspired by how Negi fought those allegations and redeemed his honour by helping India win the men’s Asian Games gold in 1998 at Bangkok and the women’s team to gold at the Manchester Commonwealth Games in 2002. So Chak De! India looks at how a disgraced former Indian hockey player, Kabir Khan, finds redemption 7 years later in coaching the Indian Women’s Hockey Team to victory in the World Cup. Incidentally, Negi was involved with the film as well as a hockey coach!
The film is involving, feel-good and rousing with just the right mix of sports and patriotism. Director Shimit Amin once again scores in his second film, capturing the sporty atmosphere just right. In fact as sports film go, Chak De! India is definitely among the better films of the genre in India. The film nicely sticks to its subject and fortunately doesn’t add distracting subplots or items. The girls comprising the team are well cast and bring an infectious enthusiasm into the film that makes you care about them and move with them. One gets engaged in the world cup, following the team, willing them on to win and rejoicing when they do so. The screenplay though predictable, as mentioned, has the key plot points by and large well worked out be it the girls having their own agenda before realizing what it means to play for India, them opposing the coach first and then coming around, the bonding of the team for the first time – bashing up guys who make a pass at two of the girls from the North-East at McDonalds or the two key forwards coming to terms with each other in the finale. Dialogue is pretty good especially in the two key pep talks that Kabir gives the forwards the night before the final and to the entire team just before the final.
That said, the screenplay is not without its set of problems. Kabir’s relationship with Vidya needed to be established more for Bindia to feel there was something between them but their interaction is sparce to say the least. The one key plot point of the men v/s women match is contrived and the scene and the result lacks any credibility whatsoever. The characterizations of the girls could have done with some more thought and depth. Their back stories, where shown (thankfully it was not thought to give each and every character a back story), are much too typical with the girls having problems with either the fiancé or husband or father who don’t want them to play and regard marriage and family as above sports. The stories and resolutions too are as pat and convenient as they come. Also, the treatment of the girls who have come from all over India is conventionally regional-stereotypical. For instance North-East girls are thought to be ‘easy’ and the two girls from Manipur and Mizoram come dressed in sleeveless tops. And of course the Punjabi girl is all brawns and hatti-katti. Worse, the officials of the Indian Hockey Association are total caricatures with their meeting scenes among the weakest in the film. And the less said about the scene of Kabir leaving his mohalla in disgrace and ultimately returning in triumph, the better.
In fact, one other problem with the film is the depiction of Kabir as a Muslim. What if he were a Hindu who made a mistake in the match and then shook hands with the Pakistan captain? Would he still have been a traitor then? Agreed the makers might have wanted to show that even today in India, a Muslim has it that much harder to prove he is a ‘good and patriotic’ Indian and we must not have such biases to him but the scenes with the media and the interviews with the public following the Indo-Pak match, not forgetting the scenes at the mohalla, are tacky as hell and do not help the film at all.
Coming to the performances, Shah Rukh Khan is spot-on as the humiliated ex-player Kabir Khan who redeems himself in the eyes of the country. His hurt, angst and frustration, sternness and final redemption are brought out perfectly. It is perhaps Shah Rukh’s best performance after Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa (1993) and Swades (2004). See him where he responds to Bindia who brings out his past and talk of the humiliation he has had to live with or his two pep talks during the World Cup and as he struggles to control his feelings after the girls have won the World Cup. The girls too are uniformly excellent, their rough edges and lack of acting experience actually a bonus rather than a hindrance giving a sense of likeable reality to the film. What’s more they look like hockey players. In particular, one must mention Sagarika Ghatke playing Preeti, Chitrashi Rawat playing the Haryanavi tomboy, Komal, Tanya Abrol playing the big, tough ‘Punjabi kudi’, Balbir, and the actress playing the associate coach, Krishna. However, Shilpa Shukla, the one experienced actress in the team playing the senior most player Bindia, seems a tad too polished and though technically one cannot find fault with the performance, it lacks the rawness of the newcomers which gives them an edge. Otherwise an extremely fine actress (Khamosh Pani (2003), Hazaar Khwaishein Aisi (2003)), maybe she was too much of an actress compared to the others. But why on earth where those B-grade extras, who also are awful actors, used for the mohalla where Kabir stays? Not to mention the way the scenes were shot – like the rural dramas of Hindi cinema in the 1960s and 1970s.
Technically, mention must be made of Sudeep Chatterjee’s camerawork which fortunately sticks to being more realistic rather than glossy. Although considering the film had a hockey coach and a sports action director, the hockey sequences are adequate but do not quite have that well covered sports coverage one is used to today. Also, we never know anything about the game of hockey or any specific tactics used in the film if any. Except an absolutely amateurish depiction of man-to-man marking that only one player can break! But since one is going along with the coach and the girls, it still passes by and the sport sequences are still good if one goes by past standards here. While the editing keeps the pace from flagging, one still feels the full 17 reels of the film running time as the final match stretches on and on right down to the penalty shootout. It is difficult to comment on how good the the sound design is as Salim-Sulaiman’s overbearing and obvious background score drowns everything else. As for the songs, the best tuned number in the film is the title song.
All in all, still an engaging feel-good film. Well worth a watch.
Hindi, Sports, Drama, Color