"Chak De! India": Bollywood Looks Back to the Future By Rolf-Ruediger Hamacher

in 10th Mumbai International Film Festival

by Rolf Rüdiger Hamacher

Thirty five films from numerous parts of the country were submitted with the festival commission sending ten of them into the fray of Best Indian Film. Since most of the features could not formally compete with the quite interesting contents, the FIPRESCI as well as the international jury voted unanimously for Mangesh Hadawale’s Tingya. However, there was one movie which may not correspond to our criteria of innovative art but for an Indian mainstream production it uses remarkably critical elements, at least for those who are ready to watch and listen.

At first view, Shimit Amin’s Chak De! India seems to be a typical Bollywood product. Tailor-made for the superstar Shahrukh Khan, it tells the too-well known sport film story of the rise of the vilified loser to the highly acclaimed winner. Here, the underdog is the Indian women’s hockey team, which — similarly to the German men’s soccer team at the World Cup 1954 — seems to get beaten seriously by the tournament favorite but ultimately wins the finals. Responsible for this success is the Muslim coach Kabir Khan (Shahrukh Khan), once top scorer in a hockey team himself. After a crucial but missed penalty against arch enemy Pakistan, he had been branded a traitor by the media and banished from the country. Seven years later he returns to redeem himself with the unpopular job of being the women’s team coach.

As usual when Shahrukh Khan is not allowed to sing and dance all the time, his limited acting abilities become obvious. With his rolling eyes and overplayed gestures, he reminds you of those silent movie stars who have not survived the transition to sound film for very long. In fact, there are scenes in which he puts on his oversized sunglasses and you don’t know if they are by ironic means or owing more to the star’s vanity. However, the fans also seem to like him when he’s not sobbing and romanticizing: Chak De! India became a surprising box-office success in India. If I interpret the viewers’ reaction at the Mumbai Film Festival correctly, you can hope that it might actually be the movie’s united girl power that wins the attention and hearts of male as well as female viewers. Although the dramatic composition causes most female characters to lack real depth, there is still a lot of material between the pictures and funny dialogues worth thinking about, particularly the relation to the Muslim neighbor Pakistan, affected by resentments, and the conflicts within the hockey team whose members came from different parts of the country.

The movie does not even shy away from taboos: homoerotic relationships between women are indicated as well as traditional family models being called into question. In the unfolding plot, Chak De! India becomes more and more a mirror image of India’s social structure. Yet, somehow, Shimit Amin finally seems to lose courage in his balancing act between patriotic sport film and society portrait. After the triumph in the finals, one of the women dumps her famous cricket-star-player-boyfriend, because he wants to keep her from starting a cricket career herself. However, these pictures can only be seen during the credits when most of the audience already jostles to get to the exits, blathering into their mobile phones. At least some people pause for a moment to look surprised at the subversive message that doesn’t seem to fit in a genre which despite all modern elements is obliged to serve tradition. This is not worth an award yet but it is definitely worth a look back to the future.