For Americans interested in learning about Bollywood, sports movies are a good way to start. The formula is largely the same the world over, with a few country- or culture-specific differences. As such, Patiala House feels familiar and offers a good introduction to Bollywood for newcomers.
Part of the reason for Patiala House‘s familiarity is that the plot shares much in common with 2002’s The Rookie, starring Dennis Quaid. In both movies, an ordinary guy gets his first shot in the big leagues at an age when most athletes are considering retirement. In The Rookie, the game is baseball. In Patiala House, it’s cricket.
Akshay Kumar plays Gattu, the dutiful eldest son of a prominent Indian immigrant leader in the London suburb of Southall. In the 1970s, Gattu’s father, Gurtej (Rishi Kapoor), responds to violent attacks on Indians by organizing the immigrants and shunning white British culture. He turns their cul-de-sac into a Punjabi enclave within Southall.
Gurtej’s hatred of white Britishers is so intense that he forced Gattu to turn down an invitation to join the English national cricket team when the boy was 17. Now, at the age of 34, a dejected Gattu manages his father’s corner store, only playing cricket when he practices pitching by himself at a local park late at night.
An English national team scout notices Gattu’s solo practice sessions and asks him to try out for the team. Gattu doesn’t wish to anger his father again, but he’s pressured to try out by Simran (Anushka Sharma), a lovely girl with a tarnished reputation. Gattu’s younger siblings also beg him to join the team, reasoning that if loyal Gattu can stand up to their domineering father, it may give them a chance to follow their own dreams as well.
The movie offers some insight into the insidious nature of racism as it pertains to immigrants. In an effort to protect his family, Gurtej cuts himself off from the dominant culture so completely that he doesn’t notice that things have changed. The fact that he lives in a different world than that of his children takes a toll on the family.
Gurtej makes Amy Chua’s “Tiger Mother” seem like a kitten. He’s so convinced that he knows what’s best for his family — and all the Indians in Southall, really — that he’s impossible to argue with. When his children threaten to engage in any activity that seems remotely British, he threatens suicide. It’s no wonder Gattu’s siblings see him as their only hope for a future they choose for themselves.
The siblings don’t get enough airtime to become fully formed characters. In fact, I’m not 100% certain that they are all biologically related to Gattu; they just live in the same house. Screentime is dominated by Gurtej, Gattu and Simran.
Kumar gives a restrained performance as Gattu, a man so bound by duty that he sacrifices his own happiness. It’s a much stronger showing for Kumar than some of his other recent dramatic roles, as in Blue and 8×10 Tasveer.
Sharma is emerging as one of Bollywood’s brightest stars. She’s beautiful, charming and effortless. Sharma has a wonderful, subtle comic sensibility, and she handles most of the jokes in Patiala House. Her face is so expressive, and she’s able to pull off a pratfall without overdoing it.
The fact that Patiala House is somewhat predictable is actually a selling point. Sports fables should be predictable. We go to them to feel uplifted and hopeful. Patiala House does a fine job being exactly what it’s supposed to be.