Friday, December 28, 2007

Chak De India

If I had seen Chak De India, starring Shah Rukh Khan, in an American theater, with an American context, I would have walked out. Structured somewhere between The Mighty Ducks and Miracle, Chake De India relates the story of a disgraced, Muslim ex-captain of the Indian men's field hockey team (who is disgraced for allegedly throwing a World Cup championship game to Pakistan), who returns after eight years in exile to coach the under-funded and under-appreciated women's field hockey team as they attempt to compete in their own World Cup in Australia. Predictably, the women's field hockey team is comprised of a motley cast of characters - the jaded veteran, the strong, mean, fat girl, the brawling defenders, super-talented, aloof rich girl, the hard-luck, scrappy forward. What makes this film interesting is that, beyond embodying these sports film archetypes, each of these girls also represents a regional stereotype from within India. And one of the film's strongest motifs/morals is that, in order to succeed, each of the women must learn to play for India, and their unified identity as the Indian national team, rather than the regional identities which they more strongly identify with.

I write about this film not to recommend it. It's not a good movie. But it is interesting as an example of how social mores, even simple ones, can be advanced through film. Since, in India, film and television are such popular media, dominating so much of the popular cultural landscape, film and television become important conduits for conveying political and cultural messages. By embracing an essentially feel-good, nationalist story, starring one of the biggest stars of them all, Chak De India is able to broach questions of regionalism (particularly against the poorer and more backwards states), bureaucratic inefficiency, Hindu-Muslim prejudice, and sexism. All in one movie! All while India's women's field hockey team improbably wins the world championship! With the climactic scene, where the young women overcome their differences and recognize that they are more alike than dissimilar, taking place in a McDonald's!

Is such a movie successful in changing people's opinions about India? It isn't a particularly insightful or subtle treatment, but I'm not sure insightful and subtle are the ways to sway popular opinion in India. And, of course, it's hard for me to tell, sitting in New York.

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