Friday, April 20, 2012

From the Rental Vault (2007): Chak De! India

The "scrappy underdogs pull together to win it all" kind of storyline is a movie cliché, but it's one for good reason: That kind of story works. When it's done well, with interesting characters and plausible details, it grabs hold of audiences in ways lots of other kinds of movies can't, no matter how innovative their plots or stylistic flourishes.

Chak De! India is just that kind of movie. The title is a Hindi phrase that translates something like, "Let's go, India!" and would serve the same function in a game that the "USA! USA!" chants do for our nation. It's the story of the underdog India women's field hockey team and their quest for a world championship.

Seven years before this team makes its run, the Indian men's field hockey team is in a championship showdown with Pakistan. India and Pakistan have exchanged more than harsh words on occasion, so the game is very important to citizens of both countries. Just before time expires, team captian Kabir Khan (Shahrukh Khan) is fouled and decides to take his own penalty free shot. He misses, and talk immediately begins that he did so deliberately because he is Muslim and Pakistan is a majority Muslim country. He drops from sight until re-emerging to coach the Indian women's field hockey team -- a team fielded mostly because the international association sponsoring the championships sort of expects it. Team members have little or no respect and receive only minimal support from the Indian sports authorities, as women's sports are considered to be unimportant in India.

Khan knows that he has only a short time to train the players to compete and he must first form them as a united team rather than a quarreling batch of regionalists. To do so, he gives them a common enemy -- himself. Language barriers, prejudices and regional rivalries erode as the players first hate and then trust Khan's leadership.

It's interesting to watch Chak De show those kinds of prejudices. Many people may see Indians as a homogenous group, but within the team are rural and urban types, different religions and different languages as well (These provide a funny bit as two of the players arrive and are unable to understand the registration official, who grows more and more frustrated as they answer all of his questions with their language's word for "What?"). Two players who have a more classically Asian appearance are isolated from their teammates at first and often the target of propositions and lewd innuendo from nearby men.

Khan insists the players play first for India, then for their teammates and then last of all, if they have anything left, for themselves. They must develop along those lines, sacrificing their regional myopia, personal differences and finally their own desires for individual glory as they progress towards the championships. Screenwiter Jaideep Sahni and director Shimit Amin also highlight the sexism the women's team must overcome to be taken seriously in India, a country where women still struggle to be on anything like an equal footing in many areas of life. Some players face family demands to stop playing games and come home to be good wives and daughters. Some deal with boyfriends who see their hard work and practice as unimportant compared to their own athletic efforts.

The 16 actresses who play the team all trained to play field hockey, if they didn't already, so the movie would look authentic. The group earned the 2008 Best Supporting Actress award at the Indian Screen Awards as a unit. Shilpa Shukla stands out as the arch and superior Bindiya Naik, the most experienced player whose will clashes with her coach most often. Chitrashi Rawat and Sagarika Ghatge also use their screen time well as rivals whose desire to succeed puts them at odds with each other, and Vidya Malvade sketches a convincing picture of a woman who has to argue against her own family's old-fashioned notions of women's proper roles.

Sharukh Khan shows the coach's own redemption arc: He begins with the thought of using the team's success to restore his own name but gradually turns more and more to coaching them for their own sake.

Not everyone wants to watch a two-and-a-half hour movie about a sport few Americans know about, let alone follow, filmed in a language even fewer Americans speak. But Chak De! India can reward those who do take it on with a feel-good story that goes to the bother of explaining and showing why you're supposed to feel good when watching it.

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