A coach with a sticky past motivates a raggedy bunch of women’s hockey players to go for gold in “Chak de! India,” a patriotic heartwarmer that scores some old-fashioned entertainment goals despite its flaws. Not as conventional as it sounds on paper, Shah Rukh Khan starrer has opened only OK both in India and overseas, but seems to work with auds who actually enter the stadium.
Pic is one in a mini-wave of sports-themed Bollywood movies this year, following racing car drama “Ta ra rum pum” (also from major banner Yash Raj) and preceding UTV’s upcoming soccer movie, “Dhan dhana dhan … Goal.” In “Ta ra,” the sport was only a hook on which to hang a family drama in which overseas Indians were shown to be totally assimilated into a Western culture. In “Chak de! India,” the sport is virtually the whole thing, used here as a metaphor for the chronic Indian problem of pulling together as a single nation.
In that respect, pic is almost an anthem for India’s new-found economic clout and its recent 60th-anniversary celebrations of independence from U.K. rule — and it gets a stirring title song from composing team Salim-Sulaiman and lyricist Jaideep Sahni (who also scripted). Thus, it’s hardly a surprise when the team of 16 girls from all over India finally get it together to beat the bejeezus out of their international opponents.
Superstar Khan plays Kabir Khan, a onetime (Muslim) star player who, in an opening sequence, lost a match for India and — in a vague reference to the 1947 Partition — was subsequently branded a “traitor” and driven from his home. Seven years later, still down on his luck, he’s asked to coach a no-hope women’s team for the world championships in Melbourne.
In the early going, script gets some dialogue-driven comedy out of the girls’ different backgrounds and characters. These range from hot-tempered Punjabi Balbir (Tanya Abrol) and spoiled princess Preeti (Sagarika Ghatge) to diminutive village tomboy Komal (Chitrashi Rawat) and team bitch Bindia (Shilpa Shukla).
But as with northeasterners Molly (Masochon V. Zimik) and Mary (Kimi Laldawla), initially branded as foreigners, script skirts lightly over regional, racial and religious differences and concentrates on the game. By intermission, they appear to have bonded finally as a team — though, as part two in Australia shows, personal rivalries still run deep.
Opening hour has the feel of a potentially much longer film trimmed back, and is slow to establish a rhythm or much originality. Pic dramatically finds its feet — and even improves technically, especially in its color processing — in part two, as the world championship games take centerstage.
Sophomore helmer Shimit Amin (“Ab tak chhappan”), shooting with multiple cameras, vividly draws the sweat and excitement out of the competition. Shaky handheld lensing, terrific cutting and uplifting music (replacing earlier techno-rock) build to a grandstand finish in which the main characters are bound tightly into the physical drama. It ain’t subtle, but it packs a punch at a simple emotional level.
Sporting a natty beard, Khan reins in his usual confident persona and lets the largely unknown cast take the field. Rawat and Ghatge are especially good as the feuding forwards, while Shukla grows in her role as the proud Bindia and Vidya Malvade adds elegance as the team captain and goalie.
Soundtrack songs are OK, with the Punjabi title number — which roughly translates as “Go, India!” — getting pride of place.