Chuk De India is a movie with hockey as a central theme, but it is about much, much more than hockey. It makes statements on so many levels that it is worth spending some time on them.
Most Bollywood films are not really pan-Indian in spirit. They divide India into zones:
- "India": The "real" India consists only of Maharashtra, Punjab, Rajasthan, UP and to a lesser extent Bihar, Bengal and, especially in older films, Kashmir.
- "South India": Everyone living "over there" is a "Madrasi". According to Bollywood, these are weirdos who have heads smeared with vibhooti and start their sentences with "AAAIY AAIYA JEE... AAMA AATA JEE..." type nonsense popularized by Mehmood and assiduously cultivated by Bollywood ever since.
- Nonexistent India: The rest of India, especially the North East (Assam, Tripura, Sikkim, Nagaland, Arunachal, Manipur, Mizoram, Meghalaya), Orissa, and to some extent MP are completely left out of all Bollywood films.
- It actively seeks to break the South Indian stereotype, but it does fall short: it makes the common mistake of pronouncing and spelling "Telugu" as "Telegu". This shouldn't have happened in a film that is making it a point to show that Telugu is not the same as Tamil. But that's really nitpicking, the spirit was right.
- We see much more of Europe, America and Australia in Bollywood films than some parts of our own country. This film features individuals from Manipur and Mizoram and makes it a point to note that they are as Indian as anyone else. Again, the film falls a little short of the mark: none of the people who are not from traditional Bollywood's "core India" get a major role.
- In India, Cricket is treated as being the only worthwhile sport. A lot of characters in the film look down upon hockey -- an impediment that the players have to face. It was an interesting decision to use hockey instead of cricket in the movie. Director Shimit Amin handles this very well. By the middle of the movie, I was quite excited about hockey.
Next, this movie makes a very strong statement on women's rights. This forms a theme that runs throughout the movie: the women are expected to give up what they want for families and boyfriends. None of this is over the top; it is handled with fine balance, showcasing the frustration of women who are on the edge of something great but have no one to share it with, least of all their families.
For a change from typical Bollywood movies, all of the characters are developed well in this movie. Each one has a little story, ordinary but interesting. The team members' quirks are alternately amusing and aggravating. The interactions between the members of the team are normal -- seniors bullying junior players, people taking a dislike to each other because of some initial incident, cliques and factions with grouches against each other or against the coach. Much of the movie is a well-paced story about how the players and coach gradually grow to like each other and come together as a team.
Shah Rukh Khan is finally displaying what a good actor he is. He always had the potential, but for the first 10 years or so of his career chose films requiring fairly ridiculous "M-M-M-Main-Main T-T-T-Tu-Tu" type stuttering as a substitute for comedy and an identical persona in roles that were really quite varied. I didn't like him in those years, but his role in Swades was great. In Chuk De India, his character is not fleshed out in much detail. The character had an incident when he was a hockey player 7 years before the main events of the movie, was branded a traitor and had to go into hiding, a button that's easy to push. For most of the movie, he is a tough, impassive coach: a role that doesn't require much acting. But for all that, Shah Rukh handled the role reasonably well.
Chuk De India also has high levels of realism, a quality Amin also displayed in his Ab Tak Chchappan. Indian sports movies typically feature actors who very obviously can't play the sport. Most of the realizations of Indian scenes are unrealistically glamorous: posh bathrooms,designer clothes, and over-the-top attitudes are pleasantly missing from this movie. Chak De India's actors look like they can actually play hockey. And they behave and live like real Indians. And the facilities in the movie look like real Indian facilities. When the team ends up in Australia, the scenes there and the reactions of the Indian team are very believable.
The sport itself is showcased much less that I would have liked. Although the nature of the movie draws the audience into the game, there are no cool hockey moves or tricks, nothing that would excite anyone actually interested in the game itself. None of the type of magic that prompted officials to inspect Dhyan Chand's hockey stick! There are some scenes where the coach plans strategy with the players, but these are just atmospheric scenes. The strategies are not shown in the movie. This is the one area where I felt the movie could have done better.
Overall, it was a fantastic movie. India needs more movies as balanced as Chuk De India, and it needs more directors like Shimit Amin.