The ’Chak De’ team. The message is that it takes the sincerity and passion of all – those who score and those who pass, as well as those who hand out water bottles – to make a winning team.
THE women whom we first meet in Chak De India are quite unremarkable: they are the stock, glum-faced characters whom we have seen so often in minor parts in Hindi cinema over the decades.
The helpless mother, anguished at having to leave the family home, being led away gently by her son; the kind neighbour who wants to give them a tiffin dabba for the journey (but her husband will not let her do so); the sour-faced woman bureaucrat, lone woman on the women’s hockey association, who herself has been co-opted into a patriarchal system. She even smiles weakly as the man chairing the meeting makes dismissive remarks about women.SHATTERING STEREOTYPES
And then, 20 minutes into the film, young women begin to arrive at a training camp. Coming from various States, they jump out of autorickshaws, hoist their kitbags on their shoulders and stream in to register for the Indian women’s hockey team.
Two young players, from Manipur and Mizoram, arrive together. Idlers by the roadside, assuming that they will not know Hindi, pass a lewd comment. One of the players turns back, slaps the man who made the comment hard on the face and walks off with her friend. How exhilarating it is to see in Hindi cinema, perhaps for the first time, the new Indian woman – not glamorous, not long-suffering, not vigilante, just fighting for her dreams and, on the way giving it as good as she gets.
First, the story. Kabir Khan, popular forward on the Indian men’s hockey team, misses a crucial penalty shot in the last moments of a World Cup final match against Pakistan. As Kabir Khan slumps to the ground in disappointment, a Pakistani player shakes hands with him. A press photographer immediately frames the moment, and the sensationalist media promptly label Kabir Khan a deshdrohi (traitor). Sound bites fly across television channels, declaring that “such people” should have been sent off to “the other side” during Partition itself.
The usual hysteria, accusations and effigy-burning follow, the ways in which our sportspeople are treated when they do not win, especially against Pakistan. Kabir Khan’s story is summed up within the first few moments of the film - yet we continue to feel the claustrophobia of an atmosphere in which two sportspersons from the two neighbouring countries cannot express normal friendship or sportsmanship without a hungry media – and a frenzied nation – turning it into the object of ugly speculation and derision.
Kabir Khan is ostracised even by his long-time neighbours. He vanishes to return after seven years with an offer to coach the Indian women’s hockey team for the World Cup. But the bored, supercilious sports bureaucrats, chewing their biscuits and slurping their chai, could not be more disparaging about the team’s potential or about Indian women in general. Indeed, it is their sheer apathy that gives Kabir Khan the job.
Except that for him, it is not a job but a mission – a chance to vindicate himself in the eyes of the nation that treated him shamefully. For Kabir Khan plans to coach the team not just to participate in the World Cup but to win it. After meeting the bureaucrats, we see Kabir Khan riding off on his scooter – but this time it is a moment of hope, transporting us into a narrative about the several struggles of identity and self-assertion, of language, class, region, religion and gender, taking place simultaneously in India.SCRIPTING SUCCESS
Scriptwriter Jaideep Sahni’s earlier works, especially Ram Gopal Varma’s underworld drama Company, Shaad Ali’s hilarious small-town caper Bunty aur Babli, and the Punjabi middle-class comedy Khosla ka Ghosla, had already marked him as one of Hindi cinema’s most talented scriptwriters. But Chak De India is his biggest achievement to date, one that finally shows Bollywood how a great script can make a great film.
Kabir Khan’s story is sketched out in minutes, bringing us quickly to the real plot of Chak De India – how a motley group of 16 women hockey players from across the country manage to transcend their differences and become a world-beating team. Director Shimit Amin, whose debut project was the underwhelming Ab Tak Chappan, films Sahni’s plain vanilla script as a taut, thrilling fight in which the underdogs claw their way painfully to the top.
But the biggest surprise in the package, and an encouraging sign, is that it has been produced by Yash Raj Films. They are usually known for their opulent, unreal spectacles set light years away from India, and certainly not in an unremarkable training hostel with bunk-beds, naked mattresses and grimy bathrooms.
But Chak De India succeeds precisely by confronting these dreary details. Here is Hindi cinema’s superstar Shahrukh Khan playing the humiliated Kabir Khan in ordinary shirtsleeves or an awkwardly fitting blazer, restlessly rubbing his silver medal, “hoping”, he says bitterly, “to turn it into gold”. Even his Ray-Bans seems like the only indulgence left over from his days of glory, now useful to hide the pain and hurt in his eyes.
Here are children playing hockey in narrow, crowded lanes amidst autorickshaws, bikes and pedestrians. Here are the disillusioned support staff at the training camp, resigned to being bullied by the senior players. And here are unsophisticated Indian girls in Australia, awed by the training facilities, waving down from the glass lift, sweetly self-conscious in their dinner sarees, but invincible in their sports kits. Despite the tight plot, the film makes important points, among them, that diversity must be understood and celebrated; that it is possible to create a cohesive team from such diversity; that sexism exists in everyday life, but also that it can be fought. It questions our ideas of community, citizenship and nationhood, but always within the realm of storytelling.
A player from Andhra Pradesh points out firmly that Telugu and Tamil are as different as Punjabi and Bihari. Players from Manipur and Mizoram politely refuse to be called mehmaan (guests) in their own country.
Mir ranjan Negi (right), who inspired the ‘Chak De India’ story, with players from Madhya Pradesh at Goragaon Bishenkhedi near Bhopal on August 21. Negi was blamed for India’s defeat in the 1982 Asian Games. He went on to coach the Indian women’s team that won the gold medal in the 2002 Commonwealth Games.
A woman dumps her self-obsessed cricketer boyfriend after he belittles her aspirations. A daughter-in-law ignores the call of parents-in-law who only care for bahu, bachha, seva and her sports-quota flat. At a lunchtime brawl at a restaurant, the women come together as a team to teach some goons an unforgettable lesson.
To an extent, the team is made up of stereotypes – the aggressive girl, the determined one, the tiny spitfire, and the hostile senior bent on making things difficult with her passive-aggressive behaviour. It is possible to wonder why the quieter players, like Soimoi Kerketa (played by Nisha Nair) from Jharkhand or Molly Zimik (played by Masochon V. Zimik) from Mizoram, could not be given a greater role to play in the team’s victories.
At the same time, the strongest message of the film is that it takes the sincerity and passion of all – central and marginal, those who score and those who pass, as well as those who hand out the water bottles and gather the training equipment – to make a winning team.
Equally, the film refuses to make sweeping generalisations. While some of the women have to handle various degrees of opposition from their families, Gul Iqbal’s (played by Arya Menon) family fully supports her desire to play. The entire family turns up to see her off to the training camp and urges her to continue its glorious hockey tradition.
While the women grapple with different forms of sexism all the time, Bindiya Naik (played by Shilpa Shukla) herself tries to offer sexual favours in exchange for the captaincy. The film also refrains from taking cheap racist potshots at players from other countries.
Notable actors are Shilpa Shukla, Chitrashi Rawat as Komal Chautala, Anaitha Nair as Aliya Bose, and Sagarika Ghatge as Preeti Sabharwal. Some of the 16 young actors are hockey players themselves. Shahrukh Khan gives a quiet, moving performance. After a match against the men’s team in which the women lose despite a fierce fight, the men raise their hockey sticks in tribute – and Kabir Khan’s delighted smile at this recognition of his team’s tenacity is one of the high points of the film.
Yet at the end, when the team returns with the World Cup and Kabir Khan finally takes his mother home, shutting the door behind them, his smile is wry. He has proved his point to the fickle nation, but his pain can perhaps never really be assuaged. The film asks us to dwell on this thought.
When Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s team won the Twenty20 World Cup in Johannesburg in September, it was “Chak De India”, a cheer from this film about women’s hockey, that became the resounding slogan for their victory. Because the film had made it possible, at least for the moment, to think of an India-Pakistan final as not only crucial, thrilling, and nail-biting – but also as a game played by sportsmen. Thereby transforming a nation of disillusioned viewers back into a nation of sports lovers.
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