The diverse group of young women representing India at hockey.

I’ve now seen three films written by Jaideep Sahni and they have all been consistently interesting and enjoyable, all picking up on aspects of contemporary Indian society and developing stories that are slightly unusual but still offering mainstream entertainment. Earlier posts discuss Khosla Ka Ghosla and Rocket Singh, Salesman of the Year. Chak De India! has a big star in Sharukh Khan but he gives a nuanced and restrained performance allowing the real stars, mostly unknown young women working as an ensemble, to come to the fore.

The title refers to an exhortation supporting India’s Women’s Hockey Team. The scenario is that the Shahrukh Khan character was India’s Hockey Captain in the World Championship Final against Pakistan when he missed a penalty in the dying seconds which could have taken the game into extra time. He is vilified in the press and then accused of being a traitor and handing the game to Pakistan. Because he is a Muslim, this charge is pursued throughout the media and he is forced to withdraw from the sport. Seven years later he is given the chance to return, but as the coach of the women’s team, who so far have been poorly supported by the hockey establishment. Nobody gives the team much chance of even being sent to Australia to compete in the World Championships and the little group of senior players is not initially impressed by the appointment of a new coach.

There are some interesting ideas involved in this set-up. The corruption of the sporting establishment is hinted at. The lower status of hockey in comparison with cricket becomes part of one of the many subplots when one of the young women rebuffs her boyfriend who as a cricketer in the national team assumes that his girlfriend will just abandon her ‘hobby’ to follow him. (Hockey is one of India’s main sports and there had been considerable national success for the men’s team before the women emerged at this level.) But the major issue in the film is the ‘shame/injustice’ that the coach feels about his World Championship failure and the national pride that he feels so strongly. This translates into more than just ‘team building’ – the young women must also learn to play for India first, for the team second and for themselves (or their specific state/cultural identity) only third.

As an ‘external’ viewer I haven’t quite decided if the film goes slightly too far with its patriotic zeal and nationalist fervour, but I guess I’m prepared to accept it. If this was a British film, I wouldn’t – I’m the kind of sports supporter who always roots for their own town/county team ahead of ‘England’ as a national team. So, I’d have been sent home from the hockey team. However, I can see that in India the issue is rather different.

The best part of the film for me was the sequence showing young women turning up from all over India representing different regions, ethnicities and religious affiliations. Their clashes with the old-fashioned administrators and then amongst themselves was well written, as was the struggle they faced in meeting the coach’s tough training demands. Throughout this Shahrukh Khan showed admirable restraint. The second half of the film shows the young women in Australia. If anything I would have liked more of this. I’d like to have seen them interacting more with the other teams and coming more into contact with Australian culture. As it is the games are well shot and exciting. The other teams are not demonised too much (but the script is endlessly confused by whether it is England, Great Britain or the UK which is competing – I don’t blame the writer, it is confusing). For the record, Wikipedia reports that the success of India’s women at the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester was the inspiration for the film.

I tend to think of Sahni’s scripts as being a form of ‘New Bollywood’ as they don’t feature song and dance ‘spectacles’ (but the music score by Salim and Suleiman Merchant is very effective and Sahni wrote lyrics for two or three songs, including the title song). This was the first film Shimit Amin directed from a Sahni script and he does a good job. The stories take place in a recognisable fictional world and the characters are believable. I think that this is one of the best sports films that I have seen.