Chak De India was one of those movies which earns grudging respect from even the harshest critic despite the usual barrage of stereotypes and narrative cliches that it contains. I was pleasantly surprised by what Shimit Amin and more importantly, Yash Raj Films had put on the table. Chak De India is no pathbreaker but it is a more than credible effort at a subject that has been grossly misrepresented in the past.
Yash Raj Films can very well take a bow for it has a lot to be proud of as far as this feature is concerned. Imagine a Chak De centered around cricket. Easy isnt it? Then again the sport itself is not the be all and end all of the film. The hockey that we see is played with passion (and shot with zest) but never forced down our throats by eulogising players - the sort one would immediately associate with cricket. The emphasis is instead on the act of playing. "Play like nothing else matters in those 70 minutes" is what Kabir Khan tells his rakshas-sena. And they do. Jingoistic drivel is never too far away with "play for your country" kind of sloganeering lurking in the shadows. Perhaps it was screenwriter Jaideep Sahni (of Khosla ka Ghosla fame) who tied all the loose ends together with his dialogue that flowed with such ease in the face of heavyweight issues like patritotism, spotrs(wo)manship and national identity.
Clearly Chak De was not an attempt at one-upmanship in order to re-establish Hockey as the national sport despite Cricket being the universal favourite. It simply sought to pay heed to a sport that has never found its place in the sun. And it is a sport that is immensely demanding of its patrons and requires dextrous skill. The tongue-in-cheek references to cricket weren't lost on anyone.
I was impressed by the sound characterisation in the film. From Kabir Khan to Bindiya Naik (one of the most alluring figures in the film) to Komal Chautala to the matronly Krishna Ji. They were full-blooded characters with genuinely complex stories behind them. There were several poignant moments in the film which could have so easily slipped over to melodrama. The rabble-rousing Bindiya Naik touted as the most experienced player on the team vows to play by her rules or to not play at all. And one realises that these rules she calls her own are not really determined by her. They have been given to her by a system that is corrupt and where it is as important to play games well as it is to play the sport.
The girls easily steal the show. What the filmmakers did when they chose these fledgling actors over crowd-pulling stars was to choose their script, their story and their characters above the obvious commerce of cinema in India. Of course with Shahrukh himself playing the lead the crowd was already collecting at the ticket counters.
This could very well be one of SRKs better celluloid moments. We are spared the star-studded swagger and the come-hither curl of the lip. No SRK with outstretched arms set off by the Manhattan skyline. No stammering and no hamming. This was Shahrukh the actor not SRK the brand, in action. We see a Shahrukh with stubble and even a few grey hairs, sporting not see-through shirts but ordinary clothes. He is not Raj or Rahul. He is Kabir Khan and that defines his identity and his persona on screen as far as Chak De India! is concerened. His hand comes up in a salaam and not a namaste when he greets the foregin coaches. It is his mulk and qaum not his desh that he talks about. Kabir Khan, forsaken by his country and his people, earns his redemption when his motley bunch wins the championship. (Of course they win!) The scene is played out eloquently. The goalie captain Vidya saves the final goal. (A seconds delay in the sound of the erupting cheers makes all the difference. ) Its done. The team has won. But for Khan it is a vindication only he knows about. We see him standing alone in the frame. He simply stands for a moment before his knees seem to become weak. He falls back a few steps and grabs onto a rail for support. The moment defines Kabir Khan's quest for identity, his quest to reclaim his pride. No expository dialogue could have conveyed what one gesture, executed effortlessly by Shahrukh, conveyed.
Once in a while a film comes along that redefines the way we look at mainstream cinema. Chak De India is not that film. But it is definitely a film that restores faith and gives hope that there is more to Bollywood than meets the eye.