The prodigal Khan returns.
Chak De! India [ Images ] is the basic, every-single-sports-movie story of a disgraced player, here called Kabir Khan [ Images ], pulling together a team of misfits to do the impossible -- here winning the World Championship.
This is also a return to glory for Shah Rukh Khan [ Images ], the superstar doing excellently as he tackles a cast with (almost) entirely deplorable acting chops and makes you believe. Director Shimit Amin [ Images ] shoves a hockey stick into the actor's hand, and -- fitter than he's looked in years -- Khan flies across cinematic AstroTurf, and shines.
Stop looking up Miracle, A League Of Their Own or The Mighty Ducks DVDs -- it's a straight sports film, and you walk into the theatre knowing how it's going to turn out.
We start, of course, with the fall. Kabir, India's most successful Centre Forward of all time, flubs a crucial penalty and is castigated by his nation -- an Islamic last name and a meteoric temper make for a media-unfriendly mix -- as Pakistan win the cup.
Thus surrounded by awful actors, Khan bids farewell to his beloved sport, even as insufferable little kids clamber onto shoulders to get a better look at the traitor. Insert typically strained background music here, and you're cringing for both Khan and the film.
Seven years later, mercifully cutting out the tiresome Rambo [ Images ]-esque routine of having to persuade the self-pitying hero to return, Khan is raring to go. He hasn't been on a field since, and is eager to resolve -- as evidenced by strategic fidgeting with waiting-room bottle caps -- hockey issues.
His plan is simple: to start from the very bottom. The Indian Women's Hockey Team is an outfit so utterly neglected that its administrators aren't even actively seeking a coach. Anjan Srivastava dips a Marie biscuit in tea, raises an eyebrow, and not having anything at stake, lets Khan go for it.
So girls, then. A motley assortment of Reddys, Boses and Sharmas are picked from the length and breadth of the country, each falling into conveniently label-friendly stereotypes, but -- and here's what makes all the difference -- the tags are affectionate, the cliches run warm and friendly. And we grow to see a mostly-gangly gang of 16 indisciplined non-actresses, trying to keep up with a coach who actually takes himself seriously. And pushes them hard.
It's completely par for the genre-specific course -- dissent, pressure, defiance, infighting, lack of self-belief, external skepticism, and of course, ego. Again, what matters is the fluidity with which writer Jaideep Sahni has coloured inside the lines. The film's true star, Jaideep's ensured that screen-time is divided mostly evenly among the lot, yet separating a few characters for obvious star roles -- Experienced, arrogant Bindia (Shilpa Shukla); attractive, ego-driven Preeti (Segarika Ghatge); massive, Punjabi Balbir (Tanya Abrol); and pint-sized, defiant Komal (Chitrashi Rawat [ Images ]).
The rest are all warm and likeable enough -- Vidya Malvade [ Images ] plays almost-sobbing homemaker Vidya; Anaitha Nair's [ Images ] Aliya is tremendously pretty -- but these are the four players leading the pack by far, taking the story towards the goalposts.
The first half takes its time to buildup, predictably. There's no surprise as the tale unfolds, and the horrible, overwhelming background score tries too hard -- this is, after all a Yash Raj film, and considering that they've gone for a no-heroine authentic sports movie, we ought allow them that major concession -- and is further undercut by trite, jingoistic dialogue. Granted, these come at occasional moments, but the melodrama truly jars. A stellar Khan holds the film together as Amin and the girls gradually get to grips -- with both lines and sticks.
The second half shuts you up, with a McMasterstroke. Here, they play. And, considering you watch several sections of hardcore women's hockey -- my personal viewership of womansport is limited to tennis and the occasional game of beach volleyball -- in silence, glued to the screen pretty much throughout, Shimit's done very well indeed. The film is compelling, constant, and leaves little room for filler. While certain tracks are painfully obvious, the fact that the director neatly cuts through several at the same time ensures a drastic reduction in complaints.
And by now, the girls actually seem to be acting okay -- well, either that or the more impressive achievement, that we've warmed up to the characters enough to like them despite their raw edges. Preeti and Komal, warring attackers, keep us nicely hooked as the director tries to keep their angle unpredictable; Bindia does well to get frustratingly under our skin; and Balbir gets us to chuckle, sometimes despite ourselves. Vidya is a bit of a moaner, an essentially unimpressive goalkeeper, adding to the lamentable Indian knack for choosing less competent captains.
Khan, of course, is King. This is a bravura performance, a gritty drive by an actor who clearly has sport in his blood. The fit of Shah Rukh as a hockey coach -- inspiring, canny, frustrated, helpless and profoundly hopeful -- is so naturally perfect that it's a wonder he hasn't done a sports film before. It's been a while since we've seen him visibly relish a role like this, and while he has to mouth some clunky dialogue, Khan is simply super.
Chak De! India isn't quite a Lagaan [ Images ] or an Iqbal, selecting the sport more trodden rather than the one conventionally heralded, and so it isn't likely to expect applause in the aisles as the team manages to unite together. It is, however, more of a sports film than both those, the story of a team overshadowing the story of an individual. It's shot nicely, but my wishlist for Amin would be that he had found a better commentator to do the play-by-play and, for heaven's sake, taken some aerial shots.
Shimit Amin's film struggles a bit, clearly trying hard to strike a balance between classic melodrama and the sporting genre. There are times when it tries to straddle the fence hastily, even failing badly, and as a result the movie, while a perfectly good sporting film, seems to have lost the edge we might have expected from the Ab Tak Chhappan director. It's a fine, true-blooded sports movie though, and deserves applause.
Sure, you know what's going to happen, but it's a good ride -- and especially satisfying to see Swiss flower-fields replaced by Australian stadiums. Not to mention the return of the King.