--Pauline Kael, 5001 Nights at the Movies
Beth's recent posts on Om Shanti Om reminded me that there are movies that are best experienced in a theater with an audience. As Exhibit A, I submit Chak De! India (2007), a movie whose plot is almost indistinguishable from any number of Hollywood sports movies. You have the ex-jock coach who's trying to redeem his own failures; you have the multi-ethnic group of fractious individuals gradually coalescing into a team; you have the rebellious star players gradually coming to see the effectiveness of the coach's "no stars" approach; and of course, you have the Big Game, where it all comes together in a moment (actually, two moments) of truth. (And no dance numbers, alas--the (few) songs serve as soundtracks to montage sequences of training or travel.)
In a theater with a cheering audience, the timeworn elements of the sports movie would probably be less apparent. On a TV screen in your living room, they're harder to ignore. But what makes Chak De! India worth watching, in spite the sports-movie clichés being checked off one by one, are the committed performances by its actors (amazingly, this is the film debut for most of the members of the team, and Shah Rukh Khan gives an excellent performance as the coach), the keenly observed details of the characters' lives, and most of all, that it's about the Indian national women's field hockey team. It was pretty great to see a group of strong athletic Indian women making no apologies for sweating, fighting (there's a great scene in an Indian McDonald's (!) where the team physically schools some impolite men in how to properly address their sisters) and playing all out on the field--all portrayed without the slow-motion prurience of a film like Personal Best.
And unlike Bend It Like Beckham's bending over backwards to assure us that the two female friends at its center are only friends, none of the team members in Chak De! India is given a crush on the coach to prove her heterosexuality. Not that the team members are portrayed as having no sexual lives; it's strongly implied that one of them is sleeping with her cricket-star fiancé, and it's treated with no undue emphasis. (Another player offers the coach sexual favors in exchange for playing time with a calculating weariness that suggests that she's had to do this before.)
If its matter-of-fact sexual politics aren't remarkable enough, there's another striking aspect of Chak De! India. Before the big game, we see the coach Kabir Khan praying to Allah for his team's success. I don't think I've seen a Hindi film before where a character's Muslim faith is treated as simply part of who they are; certainly I can't recall ever seeing any character played by SRK (himself a Muslim) invoking Allah in a film. There are also oblique references to Hindu-Muslim tensions (Kabir Khan and his mother are driven from their neighborhood after he misses the shot that would have won his Big Game) and an implied criticism of the emotional emphasis placed on sports outcomes in Indian society (though Indian society is hardly alone there--perhaps Steve Bartman could give us some insights about the overemphasis on sports in American society, if he could emerge from hiding).
In Paheli SRK endorses a woman's right to control her own sexuality, and Chak De! India attacks the pervasive sexism that views women as less capable than--and showers all the money, equipment, facilities and attention on--men. It should inspire a movement for an Indian equivalent of the US's Title IX, but its message is also broader: that equality of opportunity should exist throughout society. It's a message that we in the US should take to heart as well.
So all in all Chak De! India manages to be a pretty remarkable film in spite of the unavoidable sports clichés. See it for the small and large details of each woman's struggle to excel, for the oblique light it shines on some knotty issues in (not only) Indian culture and society, and for the sheer exuberance of the performances. And not because you'll be surprised by the outcome of the Big Game.
Postscript: after writing the above, I learned that Chak De! India is based on a true story--the gold-medal performance of the Indian women's field hockey team at the 2002 Commonwealth Games. The team was led by Mamta Kharab (seen in the photo at right), on whom Chak De! India's character Komal (played by Chitrashi Rawat) is based. So reality offers the ultimate rebuke to my talk of clichés--sometimes underdogs do overcome impossible odds.
Postscript 12/6/07: It turns out that the actual Pauline Kael quote is: "If you watch a great movie on TV, you will be committing an aesthetic crime, of which you are the victim." Since both versions of the quote are a bit awkward I'm citing the correct version here, but I'm going to leave the "quote" at the head of this post as it is.