I am a completely unathletic person. It made my parents very sad since they both played college sports. My siblings liked things that involved sweating and running and throwing spherical objects at other people. I, on the other hand, was the kid who sneaked her books outside by sticking them under her shirt and walking, half-hunched over to hide the tell-tale corners, to the nearest shade tree where I would choose the side of the trunk farthest away from the house to lean against and finish my latest novel.
Still, all that doesn't mean that I bear any ill-will toward athletes themselves. In fact my sister played Division One softball all through her undergrad years until heading off to grad school. I got to know the game and her teammates pretty well through my proximity to her, and I got to realize that female athletes are an admirable breed of their own.
Chak De! India (or Go For It! India) pays tribute to that particular type of woman, the type who's willing to discipline and sacrifice herself and maybe more than that for her team's accomplishments. Of course, it also pays tribute to a really hot guy's ability to bring them all together. Oh, wait, the fact that he's hot and also apparently single isn't supposed to weigh with this movie. But, dude. Shah Rukh Khan, you should always stubble that chin; it makes those dimples positively rakish. Aaand it's weird that none of the girls on your team apparently notice that fact.
Anyway, Chak De! is the tale of the ever-neglected women's field hockey team in India and how it comes together to win, against all odds (like any good sports film) the fictional World Championship. Field hockey is India's national sport officially, but in all but its Wikipedia listing the real national sport is cricket. I suppose that means that even its men's team is probably neglected, and it's from that team that Kabir Khan (SRK) is forcefully ejected. He loses a penalty stroke against Pakistan, and because he's a Muslim and is seen shaking hands with the opposing team's captain everyone assumes he threw the game on purpose.
After seven years of, first disgrace, then disappearance, Kabir returns to ask for the chance to coach the women's field hockey team. Even though its own board derisively refers to the teammates as women who've left their natural sphere (including one member who's a middle-aged woman--nice touch, that), Kabir eventually persuades them to allow him to take over the job.
The girls show up, and instant tension flares as their different backgrounds grate against one another. They're obviously ill-suited to come together long enough to run around the field a few times, let alone visit any sort of championship, but Kabir's determined to make them consider themselves Indian first and Bengali, Punjabi, etc. second.
So, he does his best while the veterans Aliya (Anaitha Nair), Bindia (Shilpa Shukla) and Gunjun (Shubhi Mehta) do their best to undermine him. It's not because of any personal animosity they bear towards Kabir, but because they've seen suck coaches come and go while these three remain. The scales seem to be tilting against Kabir till a moment in McDonald's changes everything, for the team and for him.
Beth has commented better than I could about the unsettling implications of the McDonald's ruckus, and the PPCC has mentioned the somewhat ironic storytelling device of having a guy come in and save the day for the women, who just can't seem to pull it together without him. (I have to confess that neither of these issues would have occurred to me while I was watching the film. Thought? While being entertained? Huh?) I agree with both these caveats, but I also see the team as a larger metaphor for the different cultures in India pulling together as a whole, as well as its different religions, and accomplishing great things on the world stage. (I'll tell you what did bug me, though, was the (female) assistant coach's deference to Kabir. Always "Khan-sahib" this and "Khan-sahib" that. Maybe that's a cultural thing but it bothered the American me.)
Plus, the characters are just super fun. In a cast this large, there isn't much room for character development, so instead the scriptwriters mostly rely on types. There's the world-weary veteran Bindia, the married woman forced to choose between her in-laws' approval and her love for the game (Vidya Malvade, playing a Vidya as well), the prep-school "snob" (Sagarika Ghatge as Preeti), the agressive sorta manly girl (Tanya Abrol as Balbir, whose unibrow I cheered every time the camera did an above-forehead close-up--I just loved her character), the tomboy Komal (Chitrashi Rawat), the outsiders Mary and Molly (Kimi Laldawla and Masochon "Chon Chon" Zimik), both from Northeast India and both often regarded as foreigners in their own country even though their Hindi sounds pitch-perfect to me (though I'm the farthest thing from knowledgeable about such things)... and a whole bunch of other girls who are all totally enjoyable to get to know in the limited time they have onscreen.
Watching the girls' journey from disparate individuals to cohesive teammates is half the fun; the other half is AngryKhan, who is now my favorite SRK avatar. AngryKhan rocks my world. However, I have to repeat myself and say that it seems really weird to me that apparently none of the girls notice the fact that AngryKhan is also SuperSexyKhan; there is an instance wherein a player propositions the coach but it's to get a position she wants (on the team, pervert, sheesh), not because she finds him all that attractive.
Barring that, the film seems to do quite well on the reality front; the girls fight over bunk placements and gossip about boys and each others' love lives. One of the girls sleeps with her boyfriend on a regular basis and everyone jokes about it but nothing more. AngryKhan does not lip-sync or dance, although he does swing a mean hockey stick. Everyone pours sweat, wears minimal to no make-up, and looks dog-tired at the end of practice. (A scene when the girls are required to wear saris had me absolutely cracking up; they looked about as comfortable as my sister's teammates did in dresses at the rare formal function.) The girls' interactions are funny and authentic and made me laugh out loud with fellow feeling more than once.
And of course they're treated like crap by most of the men in their lives, or at best with patronizing indulgence by all but Kabir. I've been told some unfortunate tales by girlfriends of mine who've traveled in South Asia about the treatment they received, but I assumed it was because they are white; if the picture this film gives is accurate then apparently it's because they are girls. Watching the girls overcome the odds stacked against them due to their gender is fun too.
As far as the soundtrack goes, there isn't one. Well, except for Sukhwinder Singh singing "Chak De India." Okay, wait, there is a whole CD but I can't remember any of the songs except for that one and the one awful number that plays during the "girls see a foreign land for the first time as a team" montage which took way too long and made me reach for the fast-forward button. "Chak De India" is really good, though.
The film does drag in the second half; there's too much time spent on the details of their trip to the World Championship and the conflict between Preeti and Komal takes too long to be resolved, but that's not much of a list as far as complaints go. The end credits sequence might be my favorite part of the movie, especially when one of the girls gets a proposal. Totally awesome. Chak De! India is worth every penny, and then some.