Sunday ReRun: Chak De! India, Shahrukh’s Sports and Patriotism and Feminism Movie

Such a good movie! Just so so good. So glad you reminded me that I had already reviewed it so I can review it again.

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.

Image result for chak de india poster

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.

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11 thoughts on “Sunday ReRun: Chak De! India, Shahrukh’s Sports and Patriotism and Feminism Movie

    • I think his only goal was to redeem himself and his mother in the eyes of the world. But at the same time, from how he treated the team, I believe that somewhere along the line he realized that female athletes care more and work harder and don’t get as far as male athletes, and he chose his team on purpose not just because he couldn’t get any other job.

      On Sun, Oct 20, 2019 at 12:28 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • That’s exactly what I think, too. He chose a task he believed worth to be dared because he values the sport and team spirit. In addition, he has a competitive mind and something like an possible impossible dream (possible for him, impossible for the officials). I think, redeeming himself was only at the third place of his goals/dreams.

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        • I also think his trauma gave him a natural instinct for the underdog. He doesn’t want to coach the boys team who has always had everything handed to them, he wants to coach people who had to fight every step of the way. We see that in the Sattar Minute speech, he really “gets” where these woman are coming from.

          On Sun, Oct 20, 2019 at 5:32 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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          • I think he wants his life to have meaning. He devoted his life to this idea of playing on a team that lifted up the glory of together as one we are stronger, and then the country turned on him and rejected him and his idealism. If that’s the truth, if unity is an illusion and people of different religions or cultures or classes can’t coexist, then everything he did and believed is false. He wants to prove that the idea of being greater together is true and is worth fighting for, but he can’t do it alone. He needs the women to believe, and he needs the world to see that this team that no one takes seriously can achieve the impossible, but only if they come together into a whole that is greater than the sum of each individual.

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  1. I saw this film before I knew much about SRK and the place he holds in Indian culture (and I can’t say I understand it very well even now, but certainly much better than I did then) and now I understand how subversive it is that none of the girls are in love with him. Shilpa’s interest in him is purely transactional. The other girls respect and love him but there’s not a hint of sexual tension. It’s a credit to SRK’s acting and ability to immerse himself in this character that this dynamic is wholly believable.

    And the McDonald’s scene is one of my favorites of any film, any industry, any genre.

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    • Yes, thank you for pointing out that they do love each other. His team starts out resenting him and if it had stayed that way (we respect him but we hate him) it would have been an easier dynamic to pull off. But instead, by the end of the film they have grown to love him and he has grown to love them. Without any hint of romance from either side, in fact convincing the audience that both sides are truly incapable of seeing each other that way, he only sees his players and they only see their coach.

      Awww, now I have to watch the moment when they win the final match again! So heartwarming.

      On Sun, Oct 20, 2019 at 1:32 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  2. One thing about this movie that irks me lot of treatment of foriegn team players; cant they be projected as simmilar passionate players as indian girls?instead movie shows them as aggressive , evil, nefarious( i am bad at adjectives) etc akin to how they show english in pre-indipendence movies, also with wierd back ground music. *end rant*

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree. Now, that you write it, I remember that it was something I did not like either. Although it largely helped to fortify the team spirit.
      What I immensely liked, was the reaction of the male players they had to fight at the beginning. It’s really made clear in the movie that it was about sportmanship, passion for the sport and balancing between individual prowess and team work.

      It’s a pity that politics never would take the spirit of this movie as an inspiration.

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    • I was okay with the one team (Australian?), because you can have teams with a nasty culture of anger and doing whatever it takes. But all the rest of them, yeah, it was a bit much that they all had to be mean and evil. It also was a missed opportunity to show how meeting and mixing with women from other places broadened the minds of our heroines. Like, see the one player chatting with other western players and learning that none of them plan to be married, that would tie in nicely with her rejecting the proposal at the end.

      On Sun, Oct 20, 2019 at 11:06 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • Love that idea may be they can remake it or do it in other sport such as soccer. Also, every sport movie doesnt need to be between david and goliath… it can be between david and better davids?

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