Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Chak De! India

I am back as you can plainly see. Most of my break was spent ruing why I declared it in the first place. I suddenly had a flood of ideas to turn into posts. Some of them, hopefully, will be implemented in the days to come. O.K., it's back to business. We start with a film review.
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Chak De! India banks more on the emotional high of patriotism than on the sports it is based on - hockey, our national game. Shah Rukh Khan plays Kabir Khan, a disgraced captain of the national hockey team, who returns to the field, this time as coach of the women's hockey team on the eve of the world cup.

This is the classic tale of the underdog overcoming all odds and doing well when it matters the most. And yet, the movie is nearly free of clich├ęs. The matches are a marvel in the way they have been shot, with the camera never capturing a shot not possible while shooting a real life hockey match.

If you have seen In A League Of Their Own, you know the routine. Take a team filled with characters, warts and all, make them the underdogs with not a chance to win anything, and you get a killer movie in the sports genre. Many a time, Shah Rukh reminded me of Tom Hanks in that movie. I am not a big fan of the star, but this a good performance from the actor. He finally gives what by his own standards is an understated performance. But what is really surprising is the ease with which he shares space with the lesser-known actors who comprise the hockey team.

In 1999 or 2000, I attended a lecture by a German director, who made documentaries, at the Max Mueller Bhavan in Chennai. He spoke of how he chose the faces of actors who portray ordinary persons in his films. He said the actors should have "strong faces". In a sequence from a documentary he showed us, a group of women cycle down a hill with the camera in a jeep tracking them. As the wind blows on their faces, the women – none of them good looking – smile at the camera. It's a rare, honest moment on film.

Many of the actors who comprise the hockey team in Chake De are not conventionally great looking. Some are pretty, but there are a few who don't have actor good looks, only strong faces. All of them are quite unlike the other - in body, face, diction and character. Each one of them comes with her problems intact. Their faces create an immediate impact when caught on camera.

When the team parades before the press wearing sarees with tricolour borders post interval, you finally realise that quite a few players – often shown as being dirty and bruised on the field – are actually good looking. Until and after that moment, it's all back to the strong faces again. Much could be said of the casting of these actors, who are nothing short of wonderful.

When I reviewed Rang De Basanti, I thought the movie was manipulating our natural patriotic instincts for commercial purposes. I am still uneasy when the patriotic highs of the movie bring tears to my eyes and a lump to my throat. I always have to ask: Am I being manipulated?

Patriotism is often a prop in movies produced by Aditya Chopra. In Kabul Express, the take on patriotism is irreverent. Everyone seems keen on saving their own skin first. In Veer-Zaara, however, the lovers are divided by land; one is in Pakistan, the other is in India and the patriotism is contrived.

However, in Chak De director Shimit Amin (Ab Tak Chappan) keeps the reins tight. The patriotism dose is just about right or at least it's enough to ensure commercial success.

I can't help but think that writer Jaideep Sahni (Company, Bunty our Babli) borrowed from the Hollywood sports classics. He at least lifted a couple of ideas from In A League Of Their Own. But still this is a brilliant effort.

The cinematographer Sudeep Chatterjee also shot Iqbal. So the sports genre must have been familiar to him. The music by the famed pair Salim-Sulaiman is quite good, though the title song seemed a bit familiar and, therefore, hummable.