Chak de! India

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"Chak De! India" is new wave Bollywood at its best, a Hindi-language film from a Mumbai studio that shows the influence of American and foreign films.

It has none of what film critic Peter Rainer has called the "Busby Beserkley" dance numbers, and there isn't any boy-girl romance. Rather, "India" is a sports movie -- something of a cross between "Bend It Like Beckham" and "A League of Their Own" -- about a disgraced coach (Bollywood superstar Shahrukh Khan) who leads an Indian girls' field hockey team toward a World Cup.

Former editor Shimit Amin, making his second film as a director, spent years working on American indie films. This shows in his determination to blend a character-driven story with Bollywood emotions.

The opening-night film of the recently concluded Indian Splendor film festival in Los Angeles, "India" already has opened in India and North America. Unfortunately, the film has been steered into the usual Indian-American cinemas here rather than braving a few mainstream theaters where it can reach out to a crossover audience. The film could certainly engage non-Indian viewers if its marketing played to the feminist sports angles; it certainly has lots to say about racism and misogyny in Indian society.

In the final moments of an India-Pakistan hockey game, Kabir (Khan), the Indian team captain, elects to take a penalty shot. When the ball barely skips over the top of the net, resulting in India's loss, rumors immediately spread that Kabir, a Muslim, was "playing for Pakistan." Despite absolutely no evidence, the media and fans take up that chant, and soon he and his mother must abandon the family house.

Seven years later, Kabir re-emerges to ask for a job as coach of an Indian girls' hockey team. No other coach will touch the assignment. The girls recruited are top players from their individual states, but they come with different languages, ethnicities and prejudices, making it nearly impossible to mold them into an Indian team.

A broad-shouldered, rough-talking Punjabi girl can barely tolerate a tiny village tomboy who can dribble like crazy. Her Punjabi language is understood by the Hindi speakers but not by the teammate who speaks Telugu. The two girls from Mizoram and Manipur in the northeast, near Tibet, suffer endless slights because of their Asian looks.

A girl engaged to an egotistical cricket player is determined to score all the goals to prove she is a sports hero, too. Consequently, she never passes the ball to the other forward. A devious though seasoned Maharashtran girl openly rebels against the coach. First she tries to get him fired, then to seduce him.

All of these dramas take place over grueling practice sessions and hard-fought matches on the road to the World Cup in Australia. The screenplay by Jaideep Sahni carefully delineates the various rivalries and animosities, sparing the poor coach none of the agony of putting out the constant brush fires among battling teammates.

This film is from a new studio established by Yash Chopra, a leading figure in Bollywood production for 40 years, so technical credits are first rate with excellent cinematography, quicksilver editing, musical montages of practice and a fine use of locations. "India" is definitely Bollywood, ashamed of neither sentimentality nor predictability. Yet its sharp-eyed view of Indian society makes for a world of difference from old-style, sugar-coated Bollywood films.

CHAK DE INDIA
Yash Raj Films
Credits:
Director: Shimit Amin
Screenwriter: Jaideep Sahni
Producer: Aditya Chopra
Executive producer: Aashish Singh
Director of photography: Sudeep Chatterjee
Production designer: Sukant Panigrahy
Music: Salim Merchant, Sulaiman Merchant
Costume designers: Mandira Shukia, Shiraz Siddique, Aki Narula
Editor: Amitabh Shukia
Cast:
Kabir Khan: Shahrukh Khan
Vidya Sharma: Vidya Malvade
Koumal: Chitrashi Rawat
Pretti: Segarika Ghatge
Aliya: Anaitha Nair
Bindia: Shilpa Shukla
Babir: Tanya Abrol
Gunjan: Shubhi Mehta
Soi Moi: Nisha Nair
Gul: Arya Menon
Running time -- 152 minutes
No MPAA rating
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