Saved the best (and also most obvious) for last! When you talk about Shahrukh supporting and encouraging and teaching young women, it’s all about Chak De, India. But, why is he doing it? Both his character in the film Chak De, and in real life by taking this role opposite Alia in Dear Zindagi?
I wrote about Chak De before in the run up to Fan. But in that case, I was talking about Shahrukh’s identity as a Delhi-ite, not his relationships to young women. Really, it’s a tribute to Chak De, and the complexity of Shahrukh’s character in it, that two such different films as Fan and Dear Zindagi could both be compared to it.
(Both Fan and Dear Zindagi were promoted by a song video before a full trailer was released. I guess that’s something they have in common?)
The most mysterious part of Shahrukh’s character in Chak De, which I don’t think I touched on at all in my previous post, is his motivation for choosing to come back and coach the woman’s team. When he is asked why he wants this position, he never really responds, the closest he comes is when he says that for the past several years after his public shaming, he has been “preparing to coach the woman’s team.”
In his recent Koffee With Karan appearance, Shahrukh joked about how Karan is constantly being asked to prove his love for Shahrukh, just like Shahrukh is constantly being asked to prove his Nationalism. It’s one of those “funny because it’s true” jokes, there is a very similar tone to Karan’s constant defenses and Shahrukh’s. But there is a deeper level to it, both of them are being attacked because they are outsiders. Karan for his sexuality-that-we-don’t-directly-talk-about and Shahrukh for his religion-that-we-sometimes-directly-talk-about-but-usually-pretend-we-aren’t.
Okay, I’m going to bring in one more random example. Mindy Lahari! For international readers who may not know, Mindy is one of the very very few female showrunners in American TV. And one of even fewer showrunners of color. Over the last season of her show “The Mindy Project”, she slowly phased out the romantic lead played by Chris Messina. And in response to this, she was accused of having some strange personal bias towards his character, or the actor. That there was a crazy emotional reason for it, not just an issue with contracts or the direction she wanted to take the show.
(Or because she knew the audience couldn’t look at Chris Messina the same way, after seeing him cheat on poor Diane Agron in this music video)
What do all of these things have in common? Karan Johar and Shahrukh, Shahrukh and Nationalism, Mindy Lahari and emotional decision making, and Chak De, India? They are about how non-normative people in positions of power are constantly being second guessed. Have you heard the phrase “twice as good and half as far”? It’s kind of like that. Karan Johar, because he is gay, is constantly assumed to have an extra dramatic and emotional relationship with his male business partners. Does Aditya Chopra get this kind of backlash when he chooses not to cast Shahrukh? No! Because Aditya Chopra is a straight Hindu man, he isn’t constantly scrutinized, his decisions aren’t second-guessed. The same goes for Mindy Lahari as a showrunner in the American TV industry, and Shahrukh as a public Muslim in India.
Okay, bringing it back to Chak De, India. Chak De never bothers to lay out exactly the path that lead Shahrukh to decide to coach the girl’s team, but I think that is because the film is smart enough to show instead of telling, and let the audience put together the pieces.
Shahrukh’s character was rejected for being Muslim. He lost all the power of his fame and popularity and male status. He was even thrown out of his home. And after years of self-reflection, he came to realize that his salvation would not be in trying to regain his former power, but in trying to help others who were similarly marginalized and forgotten. In training the woman’s team and showing that they could be just as good as the men.
Have you ever noticed that there is a Muslim player on the Chak De team? I hadn’t, until I checked the character name list. Because while the religious issue is the most prominent for Shahrukh’s character, that’s not the biggest issue for his players. Their gender trumps everything else going on in their lives. Their religious status, caste status, regional identity, language problems, everything comes after their gender.
That’s the bigger message Shahrukh is trying to give them. But he has to wait until they, and the audience, are ready to accept it. It starts out a mystery, what has brought Shahrukh to identify with these girls? And then it goes through the usual steps of team building, breaking them down, forcing them to work together, the initial rejection of his methods, etc. etc.
The audience gets caught up in this, as we always get caught up in sports movies. We learn about the characters, we care about them, we want our coach to succeed in making them into a better team, we are thrilled by the training montage, it’s all clicking along like normal.
And then comes their first big triumph as a team, almost defeating the boys’ team and earning their respect, and the grudging respect of the misogynistic sports authority board. Again, your standard beat in a sports movie, the qualified success that comes on the way to the total success. But with a bit of a twist, having them play against men instead of a fellow female team. What is up with that?
There are a few other “what is up with that?” moments scattered through out the first half, mostly related to the players’ personal lives. The wife whose family resents her spending time training, the girlfriend who’s Cricket playing boyfriend minimizes her accomplishments, the young girl who wants to prove to her father that she can do anything a boy can do, the Northeast team members who want to prove they are more than sex objects. Again, a standard beat in sports movies is to give each player a specific problem that winning the “big game” will help them solve. But why these particular issues?
(And why show them eyeing other women in skimpier swimsuits, shopping, and taking a blessing from an older man instead of an older woman before they leave? This is not the same montage we would get if they were an all male underdog team)
It all comes together in that justifiably famous “Sattar Minute” speech. This isn’t about winning the big game, it’s about being given an opportunity, for once, to succeed without restrictions. To have a moment in time when it’s not about defying expectations or fighting against society, but about just being yourself and achieving all you can achieve.
And that’s why Shahrukh’s character wanted to coach this team in particular, and (I think) why Shahrukh the actor wanted to take this particular role. Because he can relate to that, to the never ending fight to somehow “prove” the unproveable. To that desire to have just a few minutes when you can stop fighting and just “be”.
Which, in a fascinating meta-statement, is what Shahrukh-the-actor got in his “Sattar Minute” speech, and the film in general. A movie about how a Muslim is constantly questioned about his patriotism and abilities in India allowed its Muslim star to stand up and prove that he got where he was on talent and that he is capable of providing a patriotic hero and a patriotic anthem for the nation without sacrificing his identity. And at the same time, a film about a female sports team defying expectations and succeeding on the international stage allowed a group of young female actors to prove that they could be more than just love interests and daughters and sisters, they could play roles beyond that.
Bringing it back to Dear Zindagi, I don’t think Shahrukh will get to have that strong statement on his identity again. At least, not in the same way. But just as he is occasionally written off in the press as having nothing to give the new generation of filmmakers and actors, I expect there to be some resistance from Alia’s character to his “wisdom”. And as she learns to appreciate his knowledge and experience, so will the audience come to see that Shahrukh’s abilities are beyond just the NRI hero he has so often played, that he can find a place and fit within the new era of film.
And then there is the bigger meaning. Just like in Chak De, India, Shahrukh is stepping aside for a young woman to shine. While still lending the film his name and stardom. It’s a very gracious act, and also a radical act. He’s not making a “Feminist” film, which is really just about the character he is playing learning a feminist lesson. He is making a film which is feminist in structure as well, giving the main female character prominence, and making her issues most important. And I have to wonder if this career decision, at least on some level, is coming from the same the same place as his character’s decision to coach a female team in Chak De. An awareness that he has something in common with his fellow marginalized members of society, and can fight back against his own marginalization by joining them, by questioning the dominance of the upper-caste/class Hindu male from all angles.