A close-knit trio of young men determined to turn their passion for cricket into a viable business find their efforts derailed and their destinies altered by murderous religious violence in Abhishek Kapoor’s 2002-set feature, “Kai po che!” The pic starts with the backslapping camaraderie typical of Indian comedies, but economic pressures and conflicting loyalties begin to unravel the friendships, which are only intermittently reanimated by love of the sport. While its approach to controversial subject matter is populist and uninspired, the competently constructed pic, based on a bestseller, could click among the Indian diaspora when it opens worldwide Feb. 22.
More or less at loose ends, three pals decide to pool their diverse talents and resources to open a sports shop/cricket club in their native Gujarat. Volatile Ishaan (Sushant Singh Rajput), a brilliant player in high school, lends his fame and coaching skills to the fledgling enterprise. Omi (Amit Sadh), with family prominent in religion and politics, borrows money to finance the undertaking, while Govind (Raj Kumar Yadav) devotes his bookkeeping prowess to keeping the venture afloat. But just as things start to take off, events conspire to undermine the project’s feasibility and threaten the threesome’s solidarity.
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Ishaan discovers Ali, a Muslim cricket prodigy, whose promise begins to cloud Ishaan’s allegiance to his friends. Govind falls under the romantic spell of Ishaan’s take-charge kid sister Vidya (Amrita Puri), whom he is tutoring in math. And Omi, forced by disaster into borrowing heavily from his politico uncle, finds himself enmeshed in the inner-workings of the Hindu party.
Religious discord first appears merely a minor obstacle: Ishaan must convince Ali’s father, the leader of a Muslim party, to enroll his son in a sports club financed by his Hindu political rival. But later, when an earthquake puts a strain on available resources, aid is apportioned along religious lines, creating a rift between Ishaan, as protector of Ali, and Omi, whose loyalty is to his uncle. Eventually, the characters’ storylines are interwoven into actual events of 2002, as the film places the parents of one of the characters on the fateful Godhra train carrying Hindu pilgrims that was set afire by Islamists, and all three protags are swept up in the immediate sword-wielding Hindu reprisals on Muslim neighborhoods.
Although the intersection of the film’s personal and historical aspects are handled with a degree of subtlety, its sense of macrocosm and microcosm remains visually unbalanced, with history ultimately feeling less important and less immediate than fiction.
Thesping, largely by actors who have cut their teeth in TV, is technically accomplished, but never quite transcends their scripted traits, rendering the film’s tonal shifts more matter of fact than emotionally wrenching.