Shah Rukh Khan, the de facto King of Bollywood, stars in Chak De India, a hybrid of the underdog sports movie and the ecumenical patriotic rabble-rouser, released just in time for Indian (and Pakistani) Independence Day on Aug. 15.
The film's politics are affirming, and complicated. Shah Rukh is Muslim, the biggest movie star in a predominantly Hindu nation. He plays Kabir Khan, a Muslim on the Indian national field hockey team, accused of ceding victory to Pakistan in the World Cup game. Labeled a traitor, he seeks to restore his izzat (honor) by training a raggedy group of female athletes for the Women's World Cup.
Chak De India also promotes a "sisterhood is powerful" message, with its motley group of girls who represent states and languages across the subcontinent. They all battle against traditional family pressures—to cook and clean and marry-instead of running around immodestly in shorts and miniskirts (all custom-made for the film, since it's difficult to buy sports uniforms for women in India).
A combo of A League of Their Own, Bend It Like Beckham and India's definitive sports movie (about cricket and colonialism) Lagaan, Chak De India seems geared to Western expectations with its lack of songs, except for the usual training montage underscoring. There's oodles of field hockey on screen, subjectively photographed in the middle of play. Shah Rukh doesn't dance or romance, and his limpid eyes fill with tears for his team's fate, not the tragedies of the heart. (Thankfully, this film isn't about fancying the coach.) His emotions propel the story, as expected, but he's aided by his unactressy players, especially pint sized Chitrashi Rawat, hulking Tanya Abrol and Segarika Ghatge, who proves her mettle to her dismissive boyfriend.
Feminism, religious and political unity, a dash of humor and a plucky team: It's hard to be curmudgeonly about Chak De India.