This is such a good movie, one that becomes better and better as the years go by and you see how hard it is to imitate. And one of those movies that has become greater than the sum of its parts, the writer and the director and even most of the cast, we don’t remember them, we remember the whole film.
I looked up the director, just for kicks. He made this movie, and Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year, and then went back to editing and doing other small projects like he had done before this movie. I looked up the scriptwriter too, he was more interesting. He’s a poet now, a lyricist. He wrote this movie, and Rocket Singh, and Shudh Desi Romance.
Rocket Singh is a good movie too, but not as good as this one. And Shudh Desi Romance I haven’t seen, but I have heard it is good, but not as good as this one either. This is one of those special movies, the one great movie that every director has inside of them but may never have again kind of movies. Kind of like the story it tells, that one unexpected shining moment in the sun.
Maybe that is why it is so powerful. This is a movie which is telling the story of its own making. A group of young woman from everywhere, overlooked and ignored because they are women, given their own power back by a teacher who chooses to take all he learned and help others succeed. A man scorned by his country who reacts by trying ever harder to win its love. And one moment, “Sattar Minutes” as Shahrukh says in his famous speech, that it all seems possible, that they win back their power and their pride and their place.
And it’s still powerful, even years later, perhaps more powerful. Because it was so fragile. 3 years later Shahrukh would go from being the voice of patriotism to being the villain, told to “go back” to Pakistan. All those women, the promising talented women, never quite had that moment of power, moment of notice, again. The director and screenwriter, rather than going on to greater and greater heights, the had one perfect hit and then faded. Even the studio, rather than switching to making gritty brilliant successful films returned to light romances with easy answers. But none of that takes away this one moment, this one shining moment when they all came together and pulled off a miracle, made India fall in love with ambitious strong sports playing women and an angry Muslim who loved his country.
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One of the commentators, months back, referred to this as another Shahrukh love story, only this time it is about a love between his character and his country. The songs are love songs, the gestures are love gestures, like a faithful suitor waiting and working to win her back, so is he trying to win back India for himself. That was a brilliant thought and it changed the whole way I see this film.
It’s two love stories. It’s Shahrukh and India, and the women on the team and sports. He is waiting and working and suffering and trying to earn back his love. They are faithful and strong in their devotion, holding themselves apart from the common world and common life. And that is why Shahrukh wants to coach them, there is that same sacrifice in them. You don’t play women’s hockey for India because you want fame or fortune, that won’t come on the woman’s team. You do it for a pure self-sacrificing love of the sport.
In the same way, in real life, this is Shahrukh the actor sacrificing for his own love of country. No one could have expected this film to do well, to find an audience. He squeezed it in between big budget hits surely because he loved the story and he wanted to make a patriotic picture, his kind of patriotism that sacrifices and suffers and is patient and endures. And it is these women sacrificing for their passion, for acting rather than sports, but almost equally unforgiving and unrewarding. Only a few young actresses win the big roles and public acclaim, the rest suffer through demeaning jobs and casting calls and finally give up once the world has worn them down. And here they are, finally given their chance even though no one thinks this movie will turn into anything, they will still try their best.
Maybe because those feelings are so strong under the surface, we don’t actually need a lot of plot to carry us through. In the opening, we see Shahrukh proudly playing for the Indian team, confident and successful. We see rumors start that he isn’t a “true” Indian, isn’t “really” patriotic. We don’t need all the details, the quick flashes of him being friendly with the Pakistani captain post-match, because we know the feel and flavor of these stories already, we’ve seen them play out in real life often enough.
And Shahrukh’s face and performance tells us the rest. We don’t need a big speech explaining his anger and grief and resolution, we see it in his face, in his whole body, it’s the same anger and grief and resolution we see in real life from him. And we don’t need a big explanation for why he comes back years later determined to coach the woman’s team. The Hockey committee needs one, because they can’t understand his kind of patriotism. But as we watch him and his determination, we can see that we don’t need any more of an answer. He wants to coach the woman’s team because it is how he can serve his country, and give other underdogs a chance for redemption. He isn’t joking when he says he has been preparing for this job for 8 years, we see how he is focused and clear and sure of what he wants from them and what he will have them do. Every contigency has been thought out, every moment planned. The only uncertainty is if, in the end, it will be enough. If he can make them win.
The players don’t get their own backstory, not really, not much of one. Chitrashi Rawat is a daughter of a large family who wants to prove herself to her father. Sagarika Ghatge is a city girl from Chandigarh who wants to prove herself to her cricket player boyfriend. Vidya Malvade is the team captain, who is struggling with pressure from her husband and in-laws to stop playing. The other 13 players have similar sketched in backgrounds, struggling with language issues, with racial prejudice and so on. But the point of the film is that their backstory doesn’t matter, just like the states they came from don’t matter in Shahrukh’s introductory lesson teaching them that they play for “India”, they aren’t there to prove something to their families, that’s just what got them there. Now that they have arrived, they are here to play for India and win for India and that is all that should matter.
(The script did give the characters a little more backstory than even what we see in the film. And you can see that in the performances, the actresses really knew who their characters were supposed to be, far more than was explicitly shown)
This is the journey we know Shahrukh went on without any need for a big speech or an explanation. He was angry and proud, and now he is calm and focused and doesn’t care if his players hate him, or the committee is against him, he just wants to work as hard as he can to win. And he has to teach his team to do the same thing.
The process of teaching the team has a few hiccups in the films execution. I especially didn’t like how there was instant anger and jealousy among the players, breaking off into the older players and newer ones. That’s something I don’t think of as a thing women do. I’ve never been in a situation where the first instinct was to divide and be aggressive rather than come together. Sure, loads of times you are coming together in order to divide more subtly, but I wouldn’t expect the first reaction to be posturing over who gets the best beds.
But once it settles into a clearly social structure, everything works like clockwork. Vidya is the most mature one, the most sensitive one, so Shahrukh makes her team captain. He focuses on ignoring the disputes and forcing the players to work together without caring if what brings them together is hatred of him. Once he is killing them in drills, it becomes more familiar to me, locker room scenes of them massaging each other and tending to each other’s wounds. And joining together to protest.
And then there’s the miracle of the McDonald’s fight scene. It’s hard to remember where it comes in the film, it is so spectacular it tends to make you forget what comes before. Shahrukh has been working them hard and giving them no pity for days. They supported each other through this misery, and finally came together in protest. And Shahrukh calmly accepted their protest, didn’t try to fight it, and instead suggested one last meal together.
You can see the fight scene as a coincidence, boys whistling at the Northeastern girls and the others randomly choosing to defend them, while other boys appear to fight as well. In the battle, a team is formed, and they go to Shahrukh to ask for him to lead them. If it hadn’t happened, Shahrukh would have lost his position and the team might never have come together.
But it’s not a coincidence at all. Young women going out in public, it was inevitable somebody would say something. And if Shahrukh had done his job, he had created a bond between them that would lead them to leap to mutual defense. And he has created a fearless confidence in themselves that would lead them to react violently. And finally, success in this battle would prove to them the value of his training. This was always a contingency he had planned for and prepared.
This is one of many moments that show Shahrukh’s careful awareness of his place as a man who is the leader of women. He only involves himself in the fight once, pushing back a man about to hit one of them from behind. Otherwise, he lets them defend themselves. They are younger than him and stronger than him. He could have stood up and ordered them to stop, or warned off the boys, using his male authority. But, he doesn’t. In the same way that he doesn’t lower his training standards just because they are women.
But he also has a female assistant coach. She doesn’t do much, just being female doesn’t make her more of an authority, but she is always there, watching and supporting, and showing that he has nothing to hide. It was a decision the filmmakers made, to have her there but not there. She is there to reassure and remind us that Shahrukh truly has no interesting in these women besides as their coach.
The film walks a perfect line. Shahrukh doesn’t care they are women, but he cares so little that it swings back to caring again. He wants his team to succeed, he wants their training to pay off. Not everyone agrees with him, because they see the team as women. Whether that is his players’ families, or the Hockey Federation. And Shahrukh fights for them not as a man championing a woman, but as a coach fighting for his team. He isn’t treating them better, he is treating them the same. He lets Sagarika have a pass for the night to go spend it with her boyfriend, the same way a male player would be allowed to visit his girlfriend. He talks to Vidya about her marriage problems and gives her sympathy and support the same way a good coach would give sympathy and support to his male captain in his marriage problems.
(He takes care of them when they travel overseas, but the same way he would take care of any team of young inexperienced people, male or female)
And when Shilpa Shukla tries to seduce him, thinking it is her way back on the team, he reacts the same way he would to a male player. He is disgusted with her, for her lack of ethics. There is no patriarchal barking about her female purity, there is certainly no temptation, there is just disgust that she would think to get ahead by cheating, and think that he would let her.
It’s that scene that impresses me most in this film. Any other movie would play it with some kind of judgement. Would sexualize it, or would make us clutch our pearls at her lack of female modesty. But this film plays it straight, as Shilpa and Shahrukh see it, which is a transaction between a player and a coach. She wants to get back on the team and thinks she can do it this way. He disapproves of her actions and her lack of respect for his authority. That’s all, sex is a part of it because it is always there between men in positions of power and women who are underneath them, so the film deals with it. But it deals with it in a way that shows how it can be part of that power dynamic without upsetting it, without being a temptation or truly changing how they see each other.
The whole film builds to that, watching the girls hoot and whistle when Sagarika’s boyfriend comes to pick her up, seeing the way they react when one of their team mates is harassed, Sagarika and Vidya fighting the men who say they love them and yet do not seem to respect them. Relationships between men and women are a dance and power and love and sex and mixed up together. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Shahrukh is trying to build a team where it isn’t that way, where he is the coach and they are players and that is all that matters. That is what disgusts him with Shilpa, that she wants to bring that back, to try to use sex to gain power. He doesn’t reject her, he rejects that whole idea, so completely that he knows she will never bring it up again, either as an offer towards him or a threat or rumor about him.
There’ve been a lot of imitations of Chak De in the years since, but none of them have quite mastered that perfect balance of gender power. In Saala Khadoos, they couldn’t quite reject the possibility of love between the coach and player. In Dangal, mixing coach with father confused the issue. In Sultan, they reversed the genders, made her the coach, and yet love still struck. At least in Godha it was explicitly stated, he was told to leave her alone so she could train because that was more important. But the love story was still there. It should be simple, make the coach a man and the players women but don’t let that effect their relationship. But somehow it isn’t simple, somehow the gender issues always creep in.
And the patriotism isn’t quite the same either. In Dangal, there was a dream of winning for India. In Sultan, a dream of Olympic gold. But none of them somehow put in the time to build up that deep connection with your country that makes it about more than just a medal. The two that came closest were Soorma and Gold. But they showed how patriotism can be born and grow. This film just shows the end result, we don’t need to know why Shahrukh’s character loves his country more than anything, we just know it is true.