My niece isn’t old enough for movies with subtitles yet, but I want Chak De India to be the first foreign film she sees. It’s a touching parable about the virtues of tolerance, set within a familiar sports movie format. A second viewing on Netflix streaming confirmed that it’s just as good as I thought it was when I first saw it in the theater.
Shahrukh Khan stars as Kabir Khan, the former captain of India’s national men’s field hockey team. He left the sport in disgrace after missing a penalty shot that awarded victory to Pakistan, India’s archrival on and off the pitch. In a gesture of sportsmanship, Khan shook the hand of a Pakistani player, leading the media to accuse him of having thrown the match.
After seven years in exile, Khan returns to coach the Indian national women’s field hockey team, a team which exists only to fulfill federal gender equality requirements. No one else wants the job, but Khan sees it has his last chance to participate in the game he loves and prove his loyalty to his country.
The team comprises young women from most of India’s 28 states. All of the women are used to being the biggest fish in their comparatively small ponds, and none are willing to accept less than a starring role on the team. Before Khan can even contemplate getting the girls to the world championships, he must find a way to get them to work together.
First and foremost, Chak De India is a really well-executed sports movie. The first hour of the film follows the team through training, and the second covers the international tournament. In-game shots from the tournament are exciting and beautifully filmed, giving a sense of the speed and ferocity of the game. Shots from the training sessions give a sense of the physical demands placed on players, which is helpful for viewers unfamiliar with the sport.
What elevates Chak De India is its depiction of diversity. The actresses in the cast represent the wide array of Indian women: big and small, dark-skinned and light-skinned, urban and rural. Two team members from states bordering Myanmar (on India’s far-eastern border) are mistaken for Chinese or Nepalese and lament being treated like foreigners in their own country.
Chak De India also asserts the fundamental equality of women. The team not only has to fight to be taken seriously, but individual players have to fight for the right to play. Little Komal (Chitrashi Rawat) defies her father to join the team, and goalkeeper Vidya (Vidya Malvade) joins against the wishes of her husband and his family. Goalscorer Preeti’s (Sagarika Ghatge) fiance, himself a captain on the men’s national cricket team, doesn’t see the irony in asking her to quit the team because “it’s just a game.”
Throughout, Khan encourages his players to focus their frustration with a society that considers them inferior to men into success on the pitch. He knows from experience that nothing is more satisfying than proving one’s detractors wrong.