By Vidya Pradhan
“A Shahrukh movie without a heroine?” was the first reaction of everybody I told about ‘Chak De India’. Certainly in recent years the superstar seems to have been stuck in his Rahul/Raj passionate lover persona, carefully crafted by the Chopras and the Johars. Even the negative roles he played early in his career were demented, obsessive, crazy-for-love characters which he performed with his customary flamboyance. Occasionally the star has veered into unfamiliar territory, but these efforts have so often been such resounding commercial failures (Swades, Paheli) that he has publicly admitted his nervousness with Chak De, which has him playing the coach of the Indian women’s hockey team. He doesn’t have one heroine, he has sixteen of them! Chak De is a traditional sports film, dealing with the issues of failure and redemption, team spirit, national integration (versus racial integration in American films), patriotism and girl power. It could have devolved into a clichéd mess, but in director Shimit( Ab Tak Chappan) Amin’s capable hands, it turns out to be a joyride of a film. Kabir Khan( Shahrukh, playing his first Muslim character ever?) is the star captain of the Indian men’s hockey team who makes a fatal mistake in the World Cup final against Pakistan. Banished to obscurity for 7 years, he resurfaces to take up the thankless job of coaching a ragtag team of girls for the Women’s Hockey World Cup. What follows is a typical sports fairy tale, but what sets Chak De apart is its character development. There is a small element of stereotyping – the brick wall unibrow from Punjab, the Haryanvi with her colorful language, the hot Mizo babe, the language impaired girl from Jharkand – but instead of becoming caricatures, the girls show spunk and emotion and make you care about them. The bitchiness, the bullying, all ring very true and make the hard-won camaraderie seem very believable. The hockey scenes are shot very realistically and add weight and depth to the movie. The World Cup scenes are particularly commendable as they look like they were shot with international hockey teams. Apparently, Chak De is loosely based on the true story of a failed goalkeeper on the Indian men’s hockey team who went on to coach a successful women’s team at the Commonwealth Games. The movie is really not about the coach but the players, and Shahrukh wisely plays it low-key and lets the hockey do the talking. He has very few moments to grandstand and he does it in his usual over-the-top style, but it fits the situation and his restrained moments are wonderfully sympathetic. There is absolutely no romantic angle to this movie, just sports from start to finish. Kids unfamiliar with the rules of hockey will catch up soon enough and there is plenty of dramatic tension to keep them hooked. There are a few inspirational songs but they are strictly background and do not intrude into the narrative. The real surprise of Chak De is the hockey team itself. Some of the women are apparently hockey players in real life and some are professional actors but apart from the slightly glossier looks of the actors, it is hard to tell them apart. They play their parts both on and off the field with conviction and with a degree of realism not found in typical Bollywood fare. I hate to recommend an experience in Naz8 with its dirty bathrooms and its overpriced popcorn, but Chak De is a movie to be seen on the big screen. It is great fun to be surrounded by cheering, hooting fans – the jokes seem funnier, the situations are more charged- and when there is pin drop silence in the dying moments of the girls’ final match against defending champions Australia, you know the movie is working. Sports movies rarely end in the defeat of the home team, but to the director’s credit, there is an element of uncertainty right up the very end. When the movie ended with Kabir Khan coming back home the audience stayed put in their seats, waiting to find out what happened to the girls( that is taken care of as the end credits roll). We left reluctantly when the lights came back on. Shahrukh needn’t worry – this patriotic film releasing around the 60th anniversary of India’s independence deserves to be a hit. Any movie that can interest you to such an extent about women’s hockey, a game that really nobody cares about anymore in India, is worth a watch. Don’t forget to take the kids. Oh, did I mention you get to see the trailer of ‘Aaja Nachle’, Madhuri Dixit’s comeback film? And if anyone knows exactly what ‘Chak De’ means, do let me know.