काई पो चे
It is not Kai po che's fault that I have begun to grow weary of movies about young men. The persistent assumption in the movie industry (and not just in Bombay) is that stories about men are universal, while stories about women are niche. As a result, audiences are inundated with the former while the latter form rare, little-known exceptions. (As I rehearsed this rant to a friend, she told me about Gul Panag's Turning 30, a movie I had not even heard of. When even I am not familiar with a movie about young women, the marketing machinery has utterly failed.) Even the likes of Zoya Akhtar seem resigned to the notion that movies about men are what people want to see. And so as Kai po che's release approached, even as positive advance reviews came in, I found it hard to get excited. Oh, boy, I thought, yet another story about young men.
Standing on its own, though, outside of that tiresome cultural context, Kai po che is a more than passably good film, thoroughly well-acted, if somewhat artlessly written. The performances and characterizations of its three leads provide occasional truly sparkling moments embedded in a matrix of predictable cinematic emotional manipulation. Part sports movie, part political movie, and part touching paean to the power of male friendship (in the way only Indian films can express it), Kai po che occasionally bows under the weight of cliché. By the time the characters are set forth and the story's foundation lain, it is apparent how the movie will unfold; it holds no surprises. But that isn't a terrible detriment.
Some of the characters are cartoonish stereotypes: the hothead with the heart of gold, the sweet-natured nerd, the smarmy politician. The song sequence where the three boys careen through the countryside distinguishes their personalities in a most familiar movie shorthand, quoting from Rang de basanti (the granddaddy of modern movies about disaffected young men). The impulsive Ishaan (Sushant Singh Rajput) bares his chest, flings his arms, and shouts at the universe, while the reticent Govind (Raj Kumar Yadav) needs to be coaxed and cajoled into leaping from a high wall into clear water below.
Still, the movie's backdrop provides a compelling view of the grim upheavals, both natural and human-caused, that shattered Gujarat in the first few years of the 2000s. Weaving historical events into a movie can be risky; it can sometimes be a cheaply manipulative attempt to lend gravitas to a story. Here, though, it works well, adding a firm sense of place and context. The 2001 earthquake, the Godhra train burning, the ensuing riots all serve to keep the narrative from folding in on itself. And there is a powerful visual contrast between the cramped, busy streets of Ahmedabad shown during the movie's first half, and the eerily deserted, curfew-quieted city shown in the incipient hours of the riots.
Two of Kai po che's three central characters are, in one sense, typical movie heroes, driven by strong, though different, ambitions. Govind, studious and polite, harbors cautious, carefully planned dreams of succeeding at business. Ishaan, the loose cannon of the bunch, wants to run a cricket academy and mine the local talent to train the next national superstar. The third of Kai po che's tight-knit friends, Omi (Amit Sadh), is a fresh and unexpected detour from movie archetypes. Unlike most movie heroes, Omi is not a strong personality. A young man with no ambitions of his own, Omi follows the instructions of those he loves. When Govind implores Omi to ask his uncle for a loan to finance the boys' fledgling business, Omi does so. And when Omi's uncle, the powerful and slick politician Bittu (Manav Kaul), asks Omi to work for his party, Omi obliges him as well. And yet despite this evidently weak will, Omi transforms most deeply of the three, traumatized to violence by the train massacre. His arc is the most catastrophic; in the movie's climax, he is the one with the gun in his hand. Omi is in that way the boldest, least by-the-numbers aspect of the entire film. His arc is reminiscent of Aamir Khan's ice-candy man Dil Nawaz in Earth, who also suffers a tragic descent in the harsh fire of communal violence. But Dil Nawaz was a powerful will both before and after his transformation. Omi, contrary to movie convention, is not. Both before and after, he bends in the prevailing winds, whether the hopeful breezes of his friends or the angry maelsrom of his uncle and his party comrades.
Kai po che takes political sides unambiguously. Bittu's political party is closed and polarizing, framing the world in terms of "us and them" - Hindu and Muslim. This is driven home with a cudgel when, in the aftermath of the earthquake, Bittu's party refuses humanitarian aid to the Muslim family of Ishaan's cricket protegé. Later, it is Bittu and his cronies at the head of the riots, ignoring pleas for mercy in their thirst for Muslim blood. Bittu's and Omi's rage is not without some justification; they do, after all, lose close family senselessly in the train fire. But this motivation happens off-screen, and in shorthand; the audience must use its own knowledge (or experience) of communal rage to fill in the blanks. More delicate writing on this front could have made Kai po che a better movie. Bittu could have been presented more sympathetically, instead of with the mustache-twirling smarminess that makes him seem untrustworthy from the outset. This, in turn, would have made Omi's transformation more plausible and empathizable, and his friends' unreserved forgiveness of that transformation more understandable.
And finally, there is the trouble with which I started this review. The only female voice in Kai po che is Ishaan's sister Vidya (Amrita Puri). She is present to sweetly seduce Govind, to complain about hating maths, and have a precipitously-timed pregnancy scare - in short, to be a girl. How were women's dreams and lives shattered by the terrible earthquake, or by the spasms of communal hatred that ripped through Gujarat in those years? Kai po che unfortunately takes no interest in those questions. This doesn't make Kai po che a bad movie, but it does leave me an unsatisfied viewer. While no one movie can be about everything, it would be nice if so many movies were not about the same thing.