This is an interesting movie. Because it is both a sports movie and a true story, which means we know everything about it already. But at the same time, we don’t, because we don’t know what particular angle the filmmaker is going to choose to look at to show us this story. So, I leave it up to you. You already know the details of the plot, the trailer spelled it out. If you want the tone and message of the film to surprise you, don’t read this review, read this one. If you don’t care, do read this review.
Whole plot in two paragraphs:
In 1936 Berlin, Kunal Kapoor is the Indian team captain and Akshay Kumar is the lowly assistant manager. But Akshay rescues a Free India flag from a protester and uses it in a locker room speech to inspire the team and win the match. And then time flies past, the next 2 Olympics are canceled because of the war, the Free India movement goes on, Akshay becomes a drunk and is thrown out of hockey, going so low as to pawn his wife’s jewelry. Until 1946, when it is clear the British will leave and the 1948 Olympics are announced for London. Akshay begs to put together a team now, while the country is still technically British, with the promise that by 1948 they will be playing for free India. He goes to Kunal who refuses to be captain, saying his time is past but suggesting Vineet Kumar Singh, his teammate, as captain. Akshay convinces Vineet and then also finds Sunny Kaushal, a Punjabi son of a freedom fighter. And Amit Sadh, a prince from UP. The team comes together, although Amit resents giving up his usual position to Sunny and has a hard time learning to pass the ball. And then it all falls apart once Independence actually arrives. The 2 white players feel uncomfortable and plan to immigrate to Australia. And two of the 4 Muslim players end up going to Pakistan, including Vineet, the captain of the team who leaves for Pakistan after nearly escaping death thanks to Sunny’s intervention in the Amritsar riots. Akshay’s perfect team has fallen apart.
Akshay decides to rebuild, with Kunal’s help. Kunal still won’t play, but he will help train. They can’t get funding since the money is in holding post-Independence, so they move into a Buddhist temple that offers them space and Mouni Roy (Akshay’s wife) volunteers to provide their food. The team still isn’t pulling together, but Kunal gives them an exercise to help them learn to work as a team and it seems to work. There is one last hiccup when Akshay’s jealous fellow manager gets him drunk at a party before leaving for London and has him thrown off as manager. In London, the Pakistani and Indian players greet each other happily but the British have evilly set them to play each other, guaranteeing that one of the strongest teams will be knocked out before the semi-finals. Akshay’s replacement refuses to make an issue of this, the team goes on strike, finally Akshay is sent to London and the Pakistani and Indian teams work together to make sure they are appropriately matched. Vineet and Akshay are friendly, Akshay wishes him luck before the Pakistan-British match, but Pakistan loses. Akshay plans to keep Sunny a secret and use him in the semi-finals, but Sunny is increasingly unhappy not playing and confronts Amit about it, accusing him of keeping him off the list out of jealousy. Amit is offended and they almost come to blows. The next day, Amit and the team captain and the other manager insist Sunny not play as a matter of discipline since he started a fight with the team vice-captain. Akshay tries to stop it, but Sunny is kept off the field and India barely wins the match. In the finals, they are losing badly and at halftime Akshay gives a speech reminding them that they are all playing for the Indian flag, not for themselves, and begging them to let Sunny play. Sunny plays, he and Amit work together, and they win the match. YAAAAAY!
There were three things that surprised me about this movie, three things that were evocative of emotions and memories and all those things that usually don’t find their way into sports films. The first is the very beginning, and the careful way Akshay and Kunal and Vineet play their moments of playing for British India. They are stars, getting cheers and making goals, but they are also prisoners. It’s a familiar situation for athletes, it’s why in 1968 Tommie Smith and Juan Carlos gave the Black Power salute, or today the battle rages over kneeling during the national anthem instead of standing at NFL games. Their physical talent gets them fame, but they aren’t supposed to think as well.
(I always wondered about the white guy. He supported what they did, he was wearing the same “Human Rights” badge that they were, just didn’t feel it was his place to give the salute. See? People are nice!)
There is a voice over explaining the situation from Akshay, but no dialogue in the opening sequence. We just see carefully blank faces as Akshay and the players are loaded into a bus under guard, and then watch as the protesters are taken and beaten. There is a moment where it feels like Kunal wants to say something, but can’t, or isn’t sure what it is he could say, a very difficult acting moment that he lands perfectly. Also perfect is the reflexive way Akshay reaches out to catch the flag when it is tossed in the air and then shoves it into his jacket. They aren’t fighters for independence, not exactly, but it is something they want in their hearts and don’t know how to fight for it. But want it enough to feel like they should be doing something. Akshay is similarly perfect in a brief moment when we see a newspaper flash a headline about Gandhi telling people to burn their British clothing and he calmly lights a match and throws it in a trashcan, wearing a dhoti for the first time in the film, a dhoti which he wears in every scene after that.
This is not what I was expecting from this film, I was expecting the usually anger and “boo British!” stuff. But instead of was the kind of crippled feeling of being so de-humanized that you aren’t even sure how to feel anger any more. Akshay during halftime gives a really cliched speech about playing for the Indian flag, but it works, because they sold the moments before it, the sort of blind grasping for pride and identity, and so finally finding it in the flag and feeling filled with it works. And what works the best is the medal ceremony, Akshay pulling out a corner of the flag and the team slowly turning slightly off center so that they face it, their real flag, instead of the British one. A tiny moment of feeling like they have a country of their own even when they don’t.
The other thing I wasn’t expecting was the weight of Akshay and Kunal and Vineet’s journey versus Amit and Sunny’s. That sense of the older generation having been through so much, and yet somehow continuing to move forward and pass their wisdom on to the next generation. While Amit and Sunny have no idea of their struggles, can’t possibly have an idea of them, are just too different. They are young and hopeful and ready, while Akshay and Kunal and Vineet are beaten and cautious and tired. Those 12 years between Olympics, while Akshay watched his life trickle away, and yet somehow still found himself able to come back and try again 12 years older, that’s important. And the film doesn’t skip over that, the opening montage really gives you the feel of everything that happened and everything that was lost in that time.
(This whole movie is Chak De India, disgraced coach coming back and uniting the team and so on, it’s sooooo similar. But Chak De chose not to show the years between, to let us guess at them. While this film wants to make sure we know the weight of it all)
But the real surprise to me, as it was to the characters, is what happened after Partition. And that was surely a deliberate choice on the part of Reema Kagti and a brilliant use of the predictability of the sports film format. We know how this goes, the team comes together, trains together, celebrates, then goes to the big match and something goes wrong, and then they win in the end. We had the team coming together, everything is perfect, we are ready for the next bit, the final obstacle and then the winning. Only, instead, everything goes off track. First the white players leave, all but one. And then the riots happen and some of the Muslim players leave, not all, but some. And suddenly it is only half a team left.
And I think that is the clearest evocation I have seen of what happens when a country finally gets Independence. It’s never what you think it will be. America had 5 years between the end of our revolution and actually completing the constitution. And that’s kind of standard, you get your freedom, and then you suddenly realize that your problems aren’t over, you just have a new set of them. British India was a place where white and brown, Hindu and Sikh and Muslim, all were united in wanting to be free. But Independent India was a place where suddenly not everyone felt they belonged, the “team” that had won so much and done so well before was falling apart. Something new had to be built up.
Which is where Amit Sadh and Sunny Kaushal’s characters come into play. It’s not a coincidence that these were the two chosen to be the focus of the story. Amit is a prince, raised in a palace with every luxury. Sunny is the son of a Sikh revolutionary, raised in a working household. Sunny joins the police because he is forced to, forced to play for their hockey team. Amit is a star player who will not share the ball on the field, but off it he will literally give the clothes from his back (as we see in his introductory scene) to a begger in his kingdom. Amit has an old-fashioned sense of responsibility to others, but that does not translate to a sense of others as equals to him. He will casually show up to practice late but be very police about it. He will except his teammates to carry his luggage and make his bed, because it won’t occur to him to do those things himself. And Sunny has the attitude of a Sikh freedom fighter, that everyone is equal. He is no better than Amit and Amit is no better than him. He can’t understand the code of honor Amit lives by which means that even if they are not equals, he will not knowingly harm him. Amit has to learn to bow down and become one with his fellow citizens, and Sunny has to learn to trust and understand others.
There’s an odd sort of foreshadowing in them, Amit’s ancestral royals will slowly give up their estates to independent India in the next few years, his family’s title will be wiped away. Because they chose to do it, because it was the right thing to do for their people, that same urge that lead him to give up all the clothes on his body to a beggar will be what makes his family hand over their title and wealth to the Indian government. And Sunny’s side, the Punjabi Sikh’s in later years will come together in distrust of the rest of the country, will want to break off and be their own entity, just as Sunny tries to walk away from the rest of the team.
All of this is good, but this isn’t to say it’s a perfect movie. There’s quite a bit of “filler”, no reason to include Akshay’s falling into ill favor and then being forgiven and sent to London after all. Sunny Kaushal just did not impress me, and Amit Sadh impressed me so much that I wanted more of him. There were also two tiny historical inaccuracies, both of which you could argue for being accurate. At one point, Amit is told “oh, don’t be a Devdas”. And yes, Devdas was a popular novel, and a popular film in the 1930s. But would that necessarily be a common phrase in 1948, long after the 1930s film and long before the 1950s version? Anyway, I will forgive it because the subtitles translated it as “oh, don’t sulk” and I love the idea of “Devdas” translating to “sulk”. It’s so perfect! Oh, and during a scene set in New York in 1948, the music in the background is the Benny Goodman version of “Sing Sing Sing” which came out in 1937. But I suppose they could be playing an old record. And I will forgive it because it is a great song.
I appreciate Reema reminding the audience that every part is important, that you can’t afford to lose anyone from the Indian team, that it was a Muslim player who made the save in the semi-finals, that it wasn’t just the evil British who left in 1947 but also perfectly nice young white men who were raised in India but no longer felt comfortable there, that the Muslim players went to Pakistan after a lot of soul-searching and agony and physical danger, not a simple thing. And that it was also not a simple thing for those who stayed. But I want to point out, just as I did in the no spoilers review, that there are no Muslim actors in this film.
Did it seem odd to you that I had to use the name “Vineet” to describe a character who left India for Pakistan after nearly being killed for being Muslim? It seemed odd to me too. For comparison (again, just based on cast list names) Chak De India had 2 Christians and a Muslim in the cast, in addition to Shahrukh Khan as the Muslim lead. And considering she made this whole movie about accepting every part of India, I am hoping Reema doesn’t mind that I point this out. It’s not her, it’s every movie, and I am going to try to point it out for every movie, especially those in which Islamic-Indian identity is a plot point.