1982 was when television came to Kerala in a big way. The black and white Keltron set became ubiquitous in most households. This was triggered by a major event in the country, the 9th Asian Games that New Delhi hosted. The Asiad was a feather in the cap for Indira Gandhi. Our athletes did considerably well. Kannur girl M.D. Valsamma stole the limelight with a record breaking gold medal in the 400 m hurdles. P.T. Usha was a relatively unknown entity, though she hung in there with a couple of silver medals. The most awaited event of all was men’s hockey. India was the defending Olympics champion, having won the gold in 1980 in Moscow. But it was in the face of an American bloc boycott which meant that traditional rival Pakistan was absent there. The Asiad final between the two subcontinent neighbors therefore assumed Himalayan significance. Everybody looked forward to it. As a schoolboy I remember booking my seat in front of the TV although I was not a keen enthusiast of hockey at all. What happened in the next 70 minutes will always be a blotch on Indian sporting history. India lost by 1 goal to 7. Most of the goals were slam dunks for Pakistan with the goalkeeper nowhere in sight near the goal. One almost suspected match fixing. And that is exactly what the buzz was for days to come. Mir Ranjan Negi the Indian goalie was fired soon after. Nobody talked about the sins of the forwards and midfielders who allowed Pakistan to make the charge, the blame was solely Negi’s. Angry mobs stoned his house and sent him glass bangles and mascara in the mail. He was socially ostracized. He slipped in to ignominious oblivion. That week’s Bobanum Molliyum, the cartoon strip that ran in Manorama weekly, had a cat making good with fish from the curry pot. The wise-cracking elder character philosophized, ‘What else would you expect when the kitchen door is left ajar like the Indian hockey team’s goal post?’ I did not hear about Negi until a quarter century later, even though the unusual name lingered in memory. When I did hear about him, this year, it was in the context of the movie under review. Negi never quit hockey. His redemption came 16 years after the Delhi debacle, in 1998. That year he coached the Indian men’s team to Asian Games glory at Bangkok. Still he was sacked! He further went on to pull out a bigger rabbit from his hat – he coached the Indian women to Commonwealth gold in 2002. This was an incredible real life story indeed of persistence and patriotism, a story that begged to be told in the popular medium of the reel. Jaideep Sahni wrote it and thus began the saga of Chak de India (Go India).
Shimit Amin is a young director whose debut work, Ab Tak Chappan (Till Now 56) of 2004 should easily give us a glimpse into his caliber. He is among the best things to have happened to Indian cinema in the last few years. The bespectacled and bearded Amin with his baggy cap and hurried air is a talent to watch for the future. If sleek editing was the highlight of Ram Gopal Varma’s highly successful Bhoot, this man it was who manned the editing table there. Chak De India was to be his second film.
I never cared much for Shah Rukh Khan until last year when two die-hard fans of his at home, my biwi and beta, made me also a King Khan watcher. The last SRK movie I had been to was Anjaam in 1994 at a Bombay theatre. I walked out of it during interval time. Now I saw the rest of it, setting perhaps a record for the longest time taken to see a movie – 12 years! (in the process I also discovered that Anjaam is more a Madhuri Dixit movie than a SRK one). So when the Australian media announced that “India’s Tom Cruise” is coming to shoot in Melbourne, there were a handful of reasons to go have a dekho. This we did, in the spring of last year when the cold had not quite left the city though summer was around the corner. Don had been released and well-received. Khan, pushing 41, was as popular as he was at any time in his filmi career. He is a remarkable man, known not just for his histrionic abilities but also for his values, hard work and an abundance of energy rarely seen in many successful people, artists or others. The fact that he signed up for this Amin film, even if produced by the house of Chopras, was intriguing in itself. This was to be a film without song and dance and all such formulaic interpolations that go with Indian cinema’s derogatory ‘Bollywood’ label.
Shimit Amin and his brand of brave new filmmakers have to be saluted for daring to be different. To make a SRK movie sans a glamorous ‘heroine’ would be unthinkable to many established movie moguls. On top of that the theme is around the game of hockey – the national game as we occasionally remind ourselves, but a poor and neglected cousin of that colonial legacy, cricket. Junior level B league cricketers are well off in compensation than the Indian hockey team regulars. To be a woman and take up this sport is indeed a dual labor of love. In the movie we see girls coming from disparate backgrounds from a cross-section of states. They are there in the team for different reasons – if one was forced into the game to uphold the khandani maryada, another endures verbal lashings from unsupportive parents. The greatness of the movie is in the fine etching of the girls’ characters. They are distinct and well defined. They do not blur out in a faceless team pantomime. Even to the uninitiated, the technical finesse of a well-shot sports movie seems evident. The music that revs up the atmosphere for us is praiseworthy. The story is linear, no-nonsense and predictable from the word go. Still Chak de India is enjoyable at multiple levels – patriotism minus jingoism, a re-look at the way minority communities are treated in our society, an appreciation of a great sport, attitudes vis-à-vis women and sports as well as women playing sports in the country and finally a good old locker room drama. SRK fans can see it as yet another great addition to their idol’s oeuvre. Mir Ranjan Negi makes a cameo appearance in the movie. He plays the coach of the Indian men’s team led by Kabir Khan that tastes defeat at Pakistan’s hands.
To me it evoked many fond memories – an immortal Hollywood classic like To Sir with Love (adapted into Tamil by Kamal Haasan as Nammavar), for one. On the flip side there were a couple of occasions when the dialogue got avoidably corny – when glorifying women or going hyper with nationalism, the latter perhaps justified since the movie’s release was coincident with India’s sixtieth birthday. Would the movie have been good if SRK was not in it? What if it had, like the leading ladies, a newcomer hero too instead? The answer is debatable. But that would be an enormous risk that hardly any producer worth his salt would take. I would rate Chak de India as a good movie. My four year old did not dig this stick flick though.