Chak De! India: Bollywood takes on women’s sports, and (mostly) succeeds

First things first. Chak De! India is not about women. Chak De! India is about a man trying to redeem himself on the eyes of his country. There’s a reason that the poster says “Shahrukh Khan and His Team of 16 Girls.”

To be fair, though, Bollywood operates under a strict quota system where half of all films must star Shahrukh Khan. I suspect that when they were working on the concept for this movie, there was a Shakrukh Khan crisis. Someone said “Hey, we have this great idea for a movie about the Indian women’s field hockey team going to the world championships!” Then someone else said “Please tell me they need a coach so we can cast Shahrukh Khan! Otherwise we’re never going to make the quota!”

(Alternately, they just borrowed the formula from American team sports movies in which a down and out coach tries to regain his former glory by leading the underdogs to victory. But I like my version better.)

So as you’re watching Chak De! India, you basically have to push the Shahrukh Khan-ness to the side. He plays the inspirational leader who is helping these young women figure out how to be team players, which in the sports movie formula means that he plays a lot of mind games and always knows what’s best for them even when they don’t. His high-falutin’ speeches about being a good team player also collapse spectacularly when they need to kick Korea’s ass and the only player who can do it is an unrepentant saboteur. And you especially have to ignore the part where he goes to SLAP one of the players, but stops short, and no one seems to have a problem with that. WTF?

At this point, you may be saying “So why did you give it three stars? It sounds horrible!”

Basically, I watched the other half of the movie. The part that actually IS about the women.

Oh. My. Word. These women are incredible. Love them! They don’t make any speeches about how trying hard is enough, how they have grown as people and athletes and that’s what really matters, etc. They want to WIN, dammit. They are the best players in India, but the distance between that and becoming world champions is huge – especially when you’re dealing with a lot of sexist crap. The sport’s officials think the team is a joke, and tell the women that their real place is in the kitchen.

Things are no better on the personal front. Vidya’s husband wants her to schedule her training around family social events, though he and his family benefit from her apartment and job that come to her because she’s a national level athlete. Preeti’s famous cricket-playing boyfriend wants her to stop playing and be a proper little wifey. Koumal’s father scolds her for playing at all. The pivotal “now they’re a team” scene takes place in a mall, where they get together to beat up some guys who are cat-calling two of the players.

None of this is a revolutionary expose of gender issues, but it doesn’t come off as trite because the women’s feelings are so real and nuanced. Vidya isn’t just torn by the demands placed on her, she’s also weary and wistful. Preeti is ambitious for herself, hurt by her boyfriend’s lack of support, but also excited about dating a famous athlete. Koumal goes for the cheeky grin and pursuit of excellence instead of fighting with her father.

There are several other characters on the team whose personalities are distinct. None of them struck me as stereotypes. It isn’t a team made up of “the nice one,” “the backstabber,” “the big sister,” etc. It’s made up of women. As you start to know them, you really get behind them as they struggle to find their places in the team and excel.

I’m not qualified to analyze the race and ethnicity issues with any knowledge of how someone from India would perceive them, but I can describe how it appeared to me. The coach places a high value on Indian unity; the women are expected to play for their country, not their state. However, incidents occur over and over that highlight how divided the country is. A couple of the players from a more remote part of India, who have light skin, are harassed by passing young men with lascivious comments about how they’re vanilla instead of chocolate. Then, one of the field hockey officials assumes they don’t speak Hindi. One comments sarcastically about how it feels to be treated as an outsider in your own country. Some of the players also make racist remarks about two of the other players, who are from an area known for its jungles. Language barriers arise multiple times for various players until they start working together as a team to help each other.

So I got the sense that the film reflects current tensions, but encourages people to “rise above” the divisions of state and ethnicity and come together as Indians. From my standpoint, I liked how the racist incidents were treated by the filmmakers as ridiculous and wrong. There was a lot of eye rolling in response. However, I have no idea how that strikes people from various groups within India. Is it something they aspire to? Do they feel like they’re being erased in the call for unity? I know enough to feel like there may be some dangerous territory here.

If it weren’t for the near-slap, and my suspicions about the unity theme, I would give this four stars. It was a ball to watch, and I totally recommend it, so it gets three stars. Add it to your Netflix queue today! Seriously.

This post was originally published on Heroine Content, a feminist and anti-racist movie blog that ran from July 2006 to May 2012.

2 thoughts on “Chak De! India: Bollywood takes on women’s sports, and (mostly) succeeds

  1. unwiredben

    So, did they manage to fit a wedding ceremony and the story of the Hindi gods into this one too? Just wondering, as I need to get my drink on :)

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