Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Movie – Chak De! India (2007)

Chak De! India (literally “Let’s Go India!”) is an unabashedly rah-rah movie about an underdog women’s national field hockey team.  Unlike Lagaan, which was called the “Rocky of cricket”, Cha De! India is much more in the vein of the 1986 film Hoosiers.  Both feature a coach in need of redemption, leading a team of underdogs into the championships.  A more recent comparison might be the 2004 film Miracle, about the American 1980 Olympic ice hockey team – more on the underdogs theme, not the coach’s redemption theme.  All of these films are primarily about sports, but spend a good amount of time on the people participating in the sport.  They are not just faceless characters, which lifts these films above the normal sports movies.

Chak De! India stars Shah Rukh Khan as Kabir Khan.  When the film starts he is the captain of India’s men’s national field hockey team.  For Americans who have only seen field hockey played by girls, it may seem a little strange to see men playing it, but it actually is a huge male sport around much of the planet.  In fact, it is stranger in India for women to play it.  Think of it like ice hockey – mostly male, with some female teams that are still considered a little bit of a curiosity and that are fighting for respect.  That’s how India sees women playing field hockey.

Kabir’s Indian team is playing hated rival Pakistan for the World Championship.  India is down 1-0, but Kabir gets a chance to take a penalty shot.  He misses it and Pakistan wins the championship.  After the match he shakes hands with the Pakistani captain in a show of good sportsmanship.  That’s not how it is seen in India, though.  He is considered at best the cause of India’s loss, and at worst a man who actually threw the match so Pakistan could win.  Something I didn’t understand until later in the film, but that has a huge impact on why Kabir is suspected, is that he is Muslim.  While Muslims are a minority in India, they are the majority in Pakistan.  People accuse him of being a traitor because it looks like he played against his own country and in favor of his own religion.

To put this in perspective for Americans: think Boston Red Sox vs. New York Yankees, except the two cities have been threatening to literally nuke each other for decades.  Now imagine if a Yankees player came to the Red Sox team, but screwed up and lost the championship to the Yankees.  For those familiar with Boston baseball history, look what happened to poor Bill Buckner when he let a ball go between his legs in the 1986 World Series – one which the Red Sox eventually lost.  He literally had to move out of Boston.  Even worse happens to Kabir.  He is kicked off the team and completely ostracized.  People attack his house, writing “traitor” on it.  Several years pass.

India is thinking about creating a women’s field hockey team to compete in the upcoming World Championships.  Female sports are considered nowhere near as important as men’s, so they can’t find anyone who is willing to coach the team.  Kabir finally comes out of his isolation and offers to coach the team.  With no other choice, and not really caring that much anyway, India’s sports officials give him the job.

He finds things far different from his days on the men’s team.  There is almost no funding for the women’s team.  Uniforms and equipment are second hand.  He also finds that the “team” is not a team at all.  To satisfy political needs, women from every state have been selected, which means there are far too many for some positions and not enough for others.  Some are very talented, but because of this they are used to being the star and do not want to share the limelight.  Two forwards refuse to pass to each other because each wants to be the high scorer.  Some women come from very poor states and don’t even know how to speak Hindi or English.

Needless to say, these women are all far more loyal to their home states than to India.  Some are angry about they way their own country treats them, so their loyalty is not a surprise.  For instance, if you look at a map of India, there is a section that extends far to the east.  The people here have features that make them look more Thai or Burmese.  As one of them says, she is tired of being treated like a foreigner in her own country.

Kabir uses strong tactics to try to mold these women into a team.  He is very hard on them in order to try to make them bond over their common hatred of him.  This is not fully successful.  Even if he can get them to think of themselves as a single team, there are other pressures on some of the women.  One is there is direct defiance of her family, who want her to settle down into a more traditional role of an Indian woman.  Another is engaged to marry the star on the men’s national cricket team.  He considers cricket the only real sport and that field hockey, especially played by women, is silly.  There are complaints over who gets made team captain.  One woman even goes so far as to try to seduce Kabir in order to get the spot she covets so much.  He is too honorable for that, though.

There is one last hurdle to get over and that is the fact that India’s sports governors have decided to not fund the women’s team going to the World Championships after all.  Kabir challenges the men’s team with the wager that if his women win, India will send them to the tournament.  At first the men cannot even believe they are playing women.  They go ahead quickly and the women are obviously intimidated.  Kabir shows how good a coach he is, though, and the game becomes much closer in the second half.  Even though things don’t turn out like you might expect, the team does find a way to get to the tournament.  Having overcome all these obstacles in their own country, they now need to play more experienced and better funded teams from a number of other countries.  This includes World Champion, and host nation, Australia.

Shah Rukh Khan was probably the biggest male star in India when this film was made.  Like his character of Kabir, he is Muslim.  In real life he has married a Hindu woman, so the subjects of religious tolerance and intolerance are important to him.  If you read my review of Lagaan (2001) then you can see parallels between these two movies regarding people of different regions/faiths in India united as one.  By the way, I do not believe that Shah Rukh Khan is related to Aamir Khan, the star of Lagaan. 

The women in the film were a combination of actresses and real field hockey players.  They trained for months to ensure that the action looked authentic.  You might wonder about how well the hockey players were trained in acting, though.  I was actually surprised when I found out that the woman who seemed to have the best screen presence (Chitrashi Rawat) was not originally an actress, but a hockey player.

Chak De! India definitely falls into the underdog, uplifting sports movie genre.  If you hate those kinds of movies then you may want to avoid this.  If you like these movies, then this film delivers and I highly recommend it to you.  If you are just interested in the concept, then I recommend you give this film a try.

Chip’s Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

           DVD                      Blu-ray


  1. Now this is one of the best movies of Shahrukh Khan...Nice review. :)
    I would suggest you to watch Shahrukh's Swades, its my most favorite Shahrukh Khan movie.

  2. @vinay - Thanks for the recommendation. I've added it to my Netflix queue.

  3. Interesting review. Women's hockey is quite popular, not so much is the case with women's cricket. As you guessed Shahrukh Khan as no relation with Aamir Khan. Another interesting fact about Chak De is that it is based on real life events, so that makes it all the more special. It is one of the very few Indian sports based movies that I like.

  4. @Raghav - Thanks for the info. I had read that hockey stick sales went up a lot after this film was released, but not that it was based on true events.