After a flag hoisting ceremony in a building society on August 15, as residents mingled in the compound, a man in his mid-30s remarked: “The best thing about Chak De India is that it has got this cricket-crazy nation talking about another sport, and that too hockey.” So what has cinegoers across the country applauding and cheering as the Indian women’s hockey team raises the World Cup? An upsurge of patriotism? Or was it the movie’s basic tenet — team over self — that clicked with the masses? Maybe the greatest triumph of Chak De India was that the actors and production unit bravely broke Bollywood’s box office rules.
The spirit is the star
Shah Rukh Khan plays Kabir Khan, a disgraced hockey player who returns to the field after seven years with a different goal in mind — to coach the Indian women’s hockey team to excellence. Shah Rukh doesn’t romance anyone. He sings no songs with his arms thrown wide open. He goes to Australia with his team but does not have a confrontation outside the Sydney Opera House. In fact, Shah Rukh stays on the sidelines and lets the team steal the thunder. And it does.
Film trade analyst Komal Nahata credits writer Jaideep Sahni’s screenplay and script for much of the film’s success. “The spirit of patriotism and the emotions you feel are greater than the need to understand hockey. It’s about loving your country, about team spirit and the coach’s spirit.”
It’s a film that dares to break rules and yet, works. On this, Nahata says, “Cinema rules change every Friday and many of them broke on August 10. It was a brave attempt with exceptional screenplay.”
The New York Times reviewer writes, “Mr Khan (Shah Rukh), to his credit, lets his co-stars’ youthful charisma carry the movie. He also laudably portrays a man who vigorously and unabashedly advocates the advancement of women. In fact, the film’s greatest merit is its commentary on sexism in India. As it should, Chak De India gives the women, in the closing credits, the last word.”
There are several Hollywood movies to prove that films on sporting comebacks can be great hits.
In India, Lagaan and Iqbal are two of the recent sports movies that have triumphed at the box office. Director Shimit Amin agrees. “I have seen many Hollywood sports films and knew this could work, especially because the script was so good.”
A small newspaper report, tucked away on an inside page, about the Indian women’s hockey team winning a competition inspired Sahni to write the story. “But promoting a sports film is very different, especially when you don’t have several stars, songs and dances and the flash,” adds Amin.
“There is superficiality in our culture. We tend to judge the book by its cover,” he says. “But if you really want to tell a story, you must simply go ahead. We had great faith that the film would be liked. Sports movies are inspiring, both in the making and the watching,” says Amin.
All work and all play
Sixteen mostly unfamiliar faces make up the rag-tag team of players. Together, they are the stars of the film. And credit for that goes to casting director Abhimanyu Ray. Though established actresses were considered initially, “we felt that would imbalance the team and set expectations”, says Ray. “The film is about Kabir’s return and the team’s success. It’s not about any individual. Having unknown faces helps,” he adds. Yet, the audience feels attached to Haryanvi Komal, the lisp, short-tempered Balbir who uses her stick as weapon and the linguistically-challenged Soi Moi.
The brief for the casting was to find athletic actors. The audition included hockey training sessions. “We had to see how fit they are. If they were good actors but not athletic, it didn’t work for the film,” says Ray. The crew also met hockey players across the country. Many were shy or only interested in hockey, not films. After testing almost 1,000 girls, 16 made the grade. Amin says casting was the toughest part. “There is so much hockey in this film and we needed people who could commit the time for a three-and-a-half-month training camp.”
But then would the film have gained such accolade and attention without Shah Rukh Khan? It seems not. “One star is necessary, but I can only see Shah Rukh or Aamir Khan in this role,” says Nahata. Amin feels that Khan added to the film and fit the character like a glove. “Shah Rukh does draw audiences, but you do not see the Shah Rukh you would expect. Instead, you see more of the Shah Rukh you glimpsed in Swades.”
So what’s the winning recipe? After Rang De Basanti, Lage Raho Munnabhai, Khosla Ka Ghosla, Bheja Fry and now Chak De India, breaking the mould seems to be it.