This is such a nice movie! Not a perfect movie, a little confused in some parts, felt like the connective tissue was missing a bit, but overall a very nice movie.
We have had this little spurt of sports movies lately, all based on a true story of over coming adversity and so on and so on. This isn’t the best of them, but it is far from the worst. It loses track of the story it is telling sometimes, but it never loses track of it’s characters, which is just as important.
Maybe the reason it loses track of the story is because it is trying to be a sports movie when what it really wants to be is a family story. It’s not about field hockey, it’s about brothers and fathers and sons and sisters and mothers and mentors. Usually a sports movie comes alive on the field, this one goes to sleep. It’s the off the field moments that shine.
Part of that is because Diljit is the star. Diljit is never going to play the laconic perfect unbreakable sports hero. He will always bring something a little softer to his roles. Sure, he is the hero, he is brave and strong and talented. But he is also wise enough to know his limitations, secure enough to show his flaws.
Because Diljit is the star, it isn’t his character that you come out remembering. He is generous enough to let Angad Bedi shine more than he. And Taapsee after him. Which ends up being the story the film tells, how this man struggled and succeeded not because of his own strength, but because of the people behind him.
That’s the story the film is telling, but it is also the story of the film. They hired Diljit, who is good, and then also Angad Bedi, who turns out to be the secret weapon. And Taapsee, who ends up having way more to do than you would expect. Oh, and Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, who once again let the whole film soar on their melodies.
Oh Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy! I have to take a moment for them, especially because they just wrote this exact same soundtrack for Bhaag Milkha Bhaag. The Punjabi flavored triumphal anthem, love song, sad song, and happy song. But this soundtrack and that soundtrack are completely different. That was for an Omprakesh Mehra-Farhan Khan film, a movie with an edge to it and a modernity and a challenge. This is for a Diljit Dosanjh-Shaad Ali film, soothing and soft and beautiful. And the music drives the narrative, drives it as much if not more than the performances, tells us what to feel and what to think about everything that is happening.
The sports film part of it isn’t where the feelings come from. The sports are incidental, just the thing that Diljit happens to be able to do well, the thing that he focuses on when he chooses to grow up. What is important is the relationships, the households. And something that is a little unusual, we get to see both Diljit’s household and Taapsee’s. The romance isn’t uneven, isn’t a matter of one family being boringly perfect and the other being a challenge. Both sides have their difficulties that have shaped who these two young people are. And these two young people, in turn, shape each other. Taapsee changes as much as Diljit, learns to know herself in a new way just as he is learning to know himself. She isn’t the lead of the film, she doesn’t have as much time as Diljit does, but she still changes rather than simply sit there and wait for him.
It’s not just that Diljit gets to know himself, it’s that those in his family learn to know him in a new way and vice versa. This isn’t as much a story of a hockey star as the story of a petted and spoiled younger brother slowly learning to be grateful for the sacrifices made to get him where he is and to want to repay them. Sacrifices by his parents, his brother, and eventually his nation. Which is why the title song, in context, feels like an anthem not for a sports hero, but for everyone who holds on when the going is hard, who loves and sacrifices and pulls themselves up again.
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Diljit is the little brother of serious field hockey player Angad Bedi. Diljit isn’t a bad kid, but he isn’t really serious about anything, happy just bringing food to his brother and hanging out with his friends. He meets Taapsee at the hockey field when he drops off food and asks her to play a game with him, she wins, but he promises he will get better and beat her next time. He spends 6 months in brutal training with the sadistic coach, but happy because he can see Taapsee at practice. Taapsee feels the same way for him, but then they are caught together. Diljit speaks up, wants to marry her, and her brother sends him away until he can say he is playing hockey for India like she is, and has a job. At the same time, Angad goes for the India try outs and is rejected. He was the hope of the family, supposed to be selected so their father could retire and they could move to a better house and all good things would happen. Angad accepts his fate and notices Diljit’s talent, which no one else saw. He starts training him and takes him to Patiala to meet with the national coach there, Vijay Raaz. Diljit is accepted to the national team and sets a record in his first match. He returns home in triumph and speaks to Taapsee again. Her sadistic coach, Danish Husain, tries to prevent the engagement, but Taapsee shows up at Diljit’s house that night at the family celebration, surprising him and accepting the engagement. Diljit leaves happily for the World Cup, only to be shot on the train on the way there when police officer’s gun goes off accidentally.
He is in a coma for weeks, and finally wakes to learn that he may never walk again. Taapsee walks out of her overseas series to go be with him, breaking her connection with both the India team and her coach. But when she gets to the hospital, Diljit tells her that he doesn’t even mind being injured, not if he can still marry her, she is all he wants. Taapsee is disturbed, because it makes her realize he is leaning on her too much, he will never try to walk or try to do anything if she is around. So she leaves him. Diljit is broken down, but his family sticks by him. Angad becomes his chief caretaker, along with working two jobs to help support the household. His father goes back to work. Diljit can only think of Taapsee until he has a confrontation with Angad and understands how much everyone is doing for him. He declares that he wants to go back to work, to help the family somehow. And at the hockey federation, Vijay Raaz and Khulbushan Kharbanda are trying to help him too, finally convince the sports federation to give the money to pay for extensive overseas rehab. Diljit spends 6 months learning how to walk again, while Taapsee spends the same 6 months along and miserable in England, having taken a job playing for a British team. Diljit returns home, and humbly asks Angad to help him learn to play Hockey again. Not for Taapsee, but for India, to repay everything the country did for him. Diljit relearns his skills and returns to the India team. His first series is in England and he meets Taapsee and invites her to come. She shows up halfway through the match and, for the first time, he is not distracted by seeing her there, he stays focused on the goal and wins.
Did that ending seem odd and abrupt and incomplete as I wrote it? It felt that way in the theater too. And I think it is because the story got away from them a little bit. It was supposed to be a triumphal sports story, and that is the triumphal sports moment. But along the way I came to care so much more about Angad Bedi and Taapsee and everyone else back in the non-sports part than I did about the sports story, an ending on the playing field feels incomplete.
The movie in general feels just a little incomplete. Small things, like a scene explaining that Taapsee went from the India team to an English team instead of having to figure it out later from dialogue, or a scene in which Diljit asks for help raising money for rehab, instead of leaping straight from him telling his family that he wants to work to Khulbushan and Vijay fighting for him while he waits outside. Or something as small as bringing Taapsee’s mother and brother back to give their blessing on the engagement, instead of just seeing Taapsee at the celebration party and being pretty sure that means the engagement is on but not totally sure.
The story at the center of the narrative is strong enough to carry us over those little gaps, and the performances are even stronger. There is a structure to it built around 3 homecomings. The first is when Diljit returns in triumph from winning his first series. He confronts Taapsee before even going back to his home, challenging her to marry him now that he has proven himself. Danish Husain tries to forbid it and it isn’t sure what Taapsee will decide. And then Diljit returns to his home to find his family waiting, father and mother and uncle and brother and his new sister-in-law, a band, lights, a dance floor, and Taapsee there to surprise him. It’s the perfect happy ending, everything you could ever want.
But it’s not the ending. Because life doesn’t work out like that, you don’t get the girl and the fame and the triumph without understanding the value of it all. That’s what Taapsee keeps telling him, she keeps trying to make him understand that he needs to be doing all of this for himself, for India, not just to get her. This would be a shallow ending to a film with the usual kind of shallow hero, the one who gets everything just because he tries hard.
But this film takes a different tack. Diljit gets everything without really trying. Angad is the one who tried. Diljit lucks into having a perfect drag flick shot, Angad practiced for years and wasn’t selected for the India team, but he accepts his reality and changes his plans, instead using his skills and knowledge to teach Diljit. Diljit is handed a spot at training camp thanks to his natural shot, and then handed a spot on the India team, and then succeeds at his first match. Even Taapsee, he gets without trying, she likes him right away and is waiting for him to succeed. She breaks with her coach/mentor to come to him as soon as he asks. Diljit hasn’t tried yet, not really, he’s just gone from success to success, handed to him by his own talent and his family’s support.
It is the second home coming that matters more. Diljit was in a coma, then finally woke up, suffered weeks of challenging hospital life while Angad stayed with him because he was too ashamed to ask the nurses to help him, and now he is coming home. The family is happy just because he is alive, and out of the hospital. He doesn’t have to accomplish anything more for them, they dance in joy at his arrival. But there is no one else there. The music is a recording, the lights are one sad string, and it is just two old men dancing and trying to smile through their tears. It’s a happy homecoming, but a different kind of happy from the earlier one. A kind of happy that Diljit wouldn’t have even known until now, happy not because everything is perfect but because everything is so much better than it could be. It doesn’t matter that they are at their old small house, there are no friends and neighbors to celebrate with them, that Diljit is in a wheelchair. So long as he is alive, his family is happy enough to dance.
And then there’s the third homecoming. Diljit has spent 6 months in Holland trying to walk again. He went not to win Taapsee back or anything for himself, but so that he could walk again and work for his family, could pay back everything they had sacrificed. This time there is no dancing and no music. There is just a small group waiting at the airport, and the only celebration needed is to see Diljit walking on his own two feet. Diljit is truly on his own two feet now, no longer feels like he owes anything to his family, which is when he looks up and sees the Indian flag and begins to think about what he owes to his country, the country which paid so that he could walk again.
That’s Diljit’s whole character journey. Coming to fully understand what it means to be adult, to try, to care, to feel an obligation to others. And it’s beautifully indicated through his family interactions. Angad was the one with all the pressure on him, the one with the expectations. And Angad was the only one who saw something in Diljit, who challenged him to help carry the load. Because Angad knew him best and loved him best, we see that over and over, no matter what happens to him (falling in love, training for hockey, lying in a hospital bed) Angad is the one who is allowed in all the way, who shares it all. Angad has been waiting for him to grow up, to discover everything that he could do. While his parents ignored him or spoiled him, happy to let him disappear off to tend the fields while Angad was front and center. He was lucky, anything good he did was seen as a bonus, anything average was just to be expected.
The title song, as it is used in the film, feels like an anthem for both brothers. It comes after Diljit has returned, when he asks Angad to help him learn hockey again so he can rejoin the team and pay back what he owes the country. They are both warriors, in their own way. Angad for keeping the family together, keeping Diljit together, through everything. And Diljit for wanting to live up to that, to be worthy of what Angad and everyone else did for him. Diljit is a warrior not for playing hockey, anyone could do that, but for finally accepting his responsibility to the larger world and trying to live up to it.
This theme is fairly clear, the one I wish was a little better defined was the idea of responsibilities you DON’T have to live up to, which is what Taapsee is about. At first she seems a simple kind of a heroine, a talented ambitious female hockey player who wants Diljit to be worthy of her. Same as Anushka in Sultan or any number of other heroines who inspire the hero.
But then we see her at home, her mother gently asking the coach Danish Husain if she can have the next day off from practice since it is her birthday. Danish is sitting at their kitchen table cheerfully eating the food her mother serves him. And he confidently rejects the request, declaring that it is up to him to take responsibility for Taapsee and her brother, he got her brother a job overseas and he is going to coach Taapsee into the Indian team. Taapsee gets a phone call from Diljit, waiting for her outside, and she lies to Danish about it. And then sneaks into her room and redoes her hair, puts on jewelry, and sneaks out.
In one scene, Taapsee goes from the perfect talented girl, to a girl who is just as confused as Diljit. She accepts the need to practice and do well at hockey, but she also rebels against the authority of Danish, she is as in love as Danish, excited to sneak out to him. And the confusion of her backstory continues, when we meet her brother he is not the kind of weak type that Danish implied, someone who wouldn’t have been able to get a job without help. And he tells Diljit that it isn’t easy to succeed in hockey, he struggled for 12 years and it did nothing for him. Danish wasn’t the perfect savior for him either, he has convinced their mother that she owes him something, she should serve him food and respect him, but her children are wiser, know that he is scamming them, convincing them that they need him when they really don’t.
Taapsee’s journey is to walk out on Danish, and then on Diljit, to see through their pretend strength to what is real, to know that she can make it on her own without either of them and to want Diljit to have that same confidence in himself.
It’s just such a strong movies in so many ways! Angad, Diljit, Taapsee, great performances and interesting characters. The soundtrack, gorgeous and brilliant. And wonderful little moments, like Diljit finally finding his voice to sing out his love to Taapsee, or Taapsee warning him that he had better not practice singing to any other girls. Angad helping Diljit in the hospital. Vijay trying to hide his tears when Diljit returns to training camp. But then it is not put together quite right, I constantly felt like I was playing catch up, trying to follow where the plot was going because the film wasn’t quite telling me.
It’s still worth watching though. For the little moments, for the performances, for the music, for the message of trying no matter what. And of course for the real person, Sandeep Singh, who actually did survive a gunshot only to come back and play for India again, better than ever.