चक दे इंडिया
It's not a deep insight to observe that Yash Raj films are full of heavy-handed delivery and emotional manipulation. And my judgments of them sometimes turn on whether I'm in the zone when I watch them - whether I happen at that moment to be in the right frame of mind. I was squarely in the zone when I watched Dil bole hadippa for the first time, and I adored it. For Chak de India ("Let's go, India") - perhaps through no fault of the film's - I was not. Despite some eye-rolling at its ham-fisted buffeting of patriotic and feminist messages, though, I still found plenty to enjoy, even if I was several years late to the game of writing about this surprise blockbuster film.
Kabir Khan (Shah Rukh Khan) is a star of field hockey and captain of the men's national team. After his missed shot costs his team the World Cup, Kabir, a Muslim, is rumored to have thrown the match in collusion with the opposing Pakistani team. He is thrown into disgrace and run out of town on a rail. Seven years later, he volunteers to coach a ragtag women's team that no one in the nation's sports administration takes seriously. Kabir faces the formidable challenge of uniting a disparate bunch of young women from all over the country and leading them to victory on the international stage.
Chak de India at times feels like an extended clown-car gag - how many cliches can we pack into one film? Disgraced coach seeks redemption on the field? Check. Doling out slices of humble pie to arrogant, indolent players? Check. Male athletes who refuse to respect women's athletic competition? Check. Also in the mix is a near-constant stream of ham-handed nods to Indian diversity. There is a burly hot-headed Punjabi girl (Tanya Abrol), a feisty little village girl (Chitrashi Rawat), an elephant-riding dark-skinned southerner who doesn't speak a word of Hindi (Nisha Nair), and a girl with east Asian features (Masochon Zimik) whose only significant line is a complaint about "being treated like a foreigner in your own country". And then there are the speeches - oh the patriotic speeches - that pour out of Shah Rukh Khan's quivering lips at every turn. Throw in the foregone conclusion of all sports films, and it's hard for me to resist the temptation to adapt Geoff Pullum's delightful zing of Dan Brown - to call this film formulaic is an insult to the beauty and diversity of formulae.
Yet with all of those strikes against it, Chak de India manages to be a remarkably entertaining and engaging movie. Shah Rukh Khan broods and bristles as Kabir, and its the right role for his delivery, which always errs on the side of pontification even when that style less appropriate than it is here. The hockey action is well-shot and exciting, if highly improbable. And the team is adorable and easy to root for. Despite slotting neatly into their diversity campaign pigeon-holes, the players come across with strong and memorable individual personalities - they are more than a pile of tokens. This is largely because some of them, at least, are given story arcs of their own. Particularly notable among these are those of the three senior players. Bindiya (Shilpa Shukla) stubbornly refuses to play if she's not given her favorite position, and gets such a poor read on what makes Kabir tick that she offers him sexual favors if he'll name her team captain. The married Vidya (Vidya Malvade) has to defy the wishes of her husband and father-in-law, who expect her to retire from competition and be a proper wife. And Preeti (Sagarika Ghatge) is engaged to a rising cricket star (Vivan Bhatena) who thinks he's God's gift, and tells Preeti that cricket is "important," while field hockey is "just a game."
All of these stories are engaging and handled quite well, and give the film an undeniable girl-power flavor that helps elevate Chak de India above the mass of sports-film and patriotic-film cliches that might otherwise drown it. Unfortunately the movie undermines this quality just a little at its end, by relegating the resolution of the girls' stories to abrupt bites underneath the rolling closing credits, reminding the viewer that Chak de India is first and foremost A Movie About A Man; the girls' arcs are just incidental to his redemption.
Also mildly frustrating is that after all the film's emphasis on teamwork (as obvious allegory for national unity, of course), the ultimate match is decided on penalty shots. But that is a nitpick; viewed merely as a feel-good tale about a likeable bunch of unlikely heroes - from the smallest player right on up to Kabir - coming together for the glory of their homeland, defeating both prejudice and enormous unfavorable odds, Chak de India more than delivers.