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Chak de India!

A lot of political jingoism and patriotism marked this 15th August week, more so because it was our 60th anniversary of independence. Everyone and their daddy came out with some stuff which could be used to loosen the common man’s pockets by pulling on his patriotic strings. I, for one, don’t mind parting with a few green bills but at least give me some bang for my buck. My search for the bang took me to Chak De India last Friday which released in that happening week.

Now what can one expect from a movie which stars Shah Rukh Khan as the coach of the Indian Hockey team full of never-seen-before girls, and even has him rapping away in one of the songs. SRK being the coach, would call the shots obviously and lead the team single-handedly to victory because of his hard-hitting mmeh mmmeh dialogues of course. The girls would just happen to be there under the shadow of the mighty SRK. It would be SRK all the way leading the country of a billion people to their 60th year of mindless celebrations over an extremely important event in the history of India which is probably more fondly remembered by the common man as the day we got the freedom to urinate on the walls of any government building without being reprimanded by the British.

But boy, was I glad that I was wrong (about the movie, that is!)! This movie was not anything I mentioned above and turned out to be pretty much the bang I was looking for!

For starters, it’s probably the first sports movie about India that takes up real issues and attempts to capture the struggle of sportsmen (actually sports-women) in a team sport. Jo Jeeta Wahi Sikander was another exciting movie of this genre that I can recall but even that was about cycling, an individual sport, and individual excellence is not really something to write about in this country with probably the largest number of individual superstars.

Chak de India strives to showcase the struggle of a man from the point he was disgraced by the people of his country to his well deserved moment of joy and pride when he helps bring the Women’s World Cup home. And it’s the journey between these two points in his life that is more exciting than the final result that makes the movie such a treat to watch. While the fact that a movie from the Yash Chopra bandwagon looked at real problems in hockey hit me as a pleasant surprise, what made the deal a whole lot sweeter was the little nuances that the film brings out about the typical Indian mindset not just towards the game but also towards each other and ofcourse towards public figures who are made demi-gods in moments, crushed to the ground equally sooner and then returned back to their seats among the stars of the celebrity sky with as much as just one flash of brilliance. 

The plot is loosely based on the life of Mir Ranjan Negi, the Indian goalkeeper in the 1982 Asiad Games Final where India lost to arch rival Pakistan by a whopping 7-1. Negi was made the scapegoat for that defeat and the humiliation made him vanish from the hockey scene for years only to return as the coach of the Indian Women’s Hockey team and lead them to victory in the Commonwealth games in 2002.

The movie does add some twists of its own for adding drama. Negi becomes Kabir Khan so that there can be that extra sting in the humiliation. 20 years is reduced to 7 so that Shah Rukh does not have to get the “Anupam Kher hair style” to match the real coach! But it is the girls that represent the teething issues facing Indian Hockey today and in doing that, carry the movie not only on their athletic shoulders but their hockey sticks, whims and fancies, bitching and most of all their enthsiasm for the sport. Representing different states and teams, the girls intuitively refuse to break away from their regional identities, causing rival groups to be formed – an issue that has always haunted the Indian teams. They have always been accused of not playing as a team. The film portrays the differences with a generous sprinkle of humour. The coach is aware of all that and works on the team building aspect. The girls learn the importance of team work painfully. But as they learn the all important art of team building, they also learn about their own  weaknesses and strengths. It is the beauty of the girls’ journey from them being the best player in their states to them being the best players for the Indian team. The other ills plaguing all sports in this country viz. politics in associations, sports bodies being lead by people with no interest in the betterment of facilities and the charm of the foreign trip is also subtly shown.

While sports movies are the best teachers for lessons in life, they don’t help much if the sports is not good enough. Chak de India has elegantly and realistically portrayed hockey matches and players. 

But the most surprising part of the movie was that SRK serves as the lowest common denominator and, for a change, doesn’t mind lying low when the scene demands so. His greatest contribution to the movie has been his restraint in his acting which makes him affable yet again to a fan-following he lost somewhere in his quest to become bigger than Big B. Also, to be fair to Shah Rukh and his dream of doing something for the sport he wanted to play at the highest level, his presence itself means a lot in terms of the widespread media attention that the movie is getting. It would be difficult to get the audience to the theatres without the attraction of SRK!  

If I see something missing from this movie, it would surely be the fact that it misses out on a major reason for the poor showing of the Indian Hockey team in tournaments around the globe – the Astro Turf. Players in India have always played on grass and most do so till they reach the national level. It is only beyond this phase that the players get to play on the surface which players around the world take all their life to get used to but the Indian players probably get only a fraction of that time to get their act together. Indian hockey was world champion in the days of yore because they played on the same surface all through but Astro Turf takes the game to a totally different level in terms of the stamina of players and the pace of the game.

Iqbaal and Lagaan were outstanding movies about sports too but this one is in a different league. This is a coming-of-age Bollywood movie which showcases recent history that most of us were not even aware of; and it does so in a pleasant yet realistic way coming as a breath of fresh air. The movie sure revived my interest in hockey. I am sure it would have done this for a lot of others as well.

Indian Hockey players of the past were so good that there is actually a skill named after them – the Indian Dribble. Let’s hope this movie can inspire some young blood to bring some of that glory back to India.

Chak de India!
Here is the news item related to the actual Commonwealth Games that the Indian Hockey Women’s team won under Mir Ranjan Negi. The actual win was a bit controversial. Read on!
India Deny England Gold

A few news articles highlighting the problems in the Indian Hockey camp:
1) Egos drag hockey team into sticky mess
2) Killer Instinct: Do we really lack it?
3) Dhanraj has attitude problem, says coach

Last, but not the least, the man himself, Mir Ranjan Negi
http://www.tribuneindia.com/2007/20070814/cth3.htm#2

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