Cast: Shah Rukh Khan, Chitrashi Rawat, Tanya Abrol
Direction: Shimit Amin
Put your hands together for director Shimit Amin's Chak De India, this week's big new Bollywood release about a disgraced former national hockey player who, seven years after he was falsely accused of throwing away the game, shows up to coach the national women's hockey team.
The coach in question, Kabir Khan played by Shah Rukh Khan, succeeds in convincing a reluctant hockey association to give his team a chance. The team itself is made up of girls from across the length and breadth of the country, each a state champ in her own right.
But the first rule Mr Coach teaches his girls is to forget that they represent different states, he asks them to forget their regional identities. They're all playing for the country, they're all on the same team, and winning a hockey match is about teamwork and not about personal successes.
His methods may be unconventional and his team resists them at first, but soon enough you realise he's the only guy who can make them forget their differences and play as a team.
Chak De India, written by Jaideep Sahni, is not a pathbreaking film, far from it actually. It doesn't break new ground, it doesn't tell a dramatically different story and even in terms of technique, it's not exactly jaw-dropping. But what it does have is a very 'clean' screenplay with all the typical elements of a good sports film in place.
In fact, Chak De India is what I'd safely call a by-the-book sports film, it's got a perfect three-act structure and follows all the basic rules of storytelling quite faithfully.
There's a set-up, there's a build-up and there's a climax. But because it's done so neatly, and because all the elements come together so well, the film works perfectly.
In fact, the plot and the screenplay of Chak De India is a no-brainer, it's designed to be a crowd-pleaser from the very word go -- there's the basic underdog story at the core, there's a patriotic angle thrown in for good measure, the film even talks about gender equality.
How can you not root for an underdog team of female hockey players who're laughed at by their own families, who're ridiculed by the very association that's brought them together? How can your heart not go out to a bunch of gawky girls who're constantly bickering with each other? How can you not cheer for a man who vindicates himself finally, after being punished for a crime he didn't commit?
Despite its sluggish pace, Chak De India is a compelling film to watch and much of its charm lies in those wonderful scenes between the 16-odd girls who make up coach Kabir Khan's underdog team.
They're terrible actors most of them, but it's because the director falls on their natural instincts that they come off so lovable and endearing. Chitrashi Rawat who plays the pint-sized Komal and Tanya Abrol who plays the Punjaban-toughie Balbir are nothing short of excellent.
Meanwhile, Segarika Ghatge who plays the champ from Chandigarh Preeti Sabharwal leaves a lasting impression because she's possibly the only one of the lot who can really act. Even the smaller bit players are superbly cast, and even if they've got only a few lines in the whole film, they'e integral to the narrative.
Director Shimit Amin touches all the right chords when he constructs those excellent confrontation and disagreement scenes between the girls, and even though he throws around a bagful of cultural stereotypes, you don't grumble too much because these cliches aren't so much offensive as they are affectionate.
In the end, Chak De India keeps you glued to your seat because the hockey scenes are terrific. It's a sports film in the true spirit of sports films, and like me, even if you're not a fan of watching sports, it's unlikely the film will bore you because it's so dramatically shot.
The film's climax, the World Hockey Championship scenes, play out pretty much exactly as you expect them to, but that's the magic of sport, it engages you and involves you nonetheless.
And that leaves us to talk about Shah Rukh Khan who I must admit I haven't been the biggest fan of because I'm often bored by the films he chooses. But for the first time since Swades, Shah Rukh plays a role without any of his typical trappings, without any of his trademark quirks.
He sinks his teeth into the part of the determined coach and comes up with such a terrific performance. He's hopeful at times and despondent at others, he's humorous at times, and stern at others. He plays Kabir Khan like a real flesh-and-blood human being. Look at him in that scene where he's moving out of his house with his mother after being publicly shamed -- Shah Rukh has seldom been this good.
There you have it then, it's an immensely satisfying movie experience, I'm going to go with four out of five and two thumbs up for director Shimit Amin's Chak De India. It's got a predictable premise and you know exactly which way the story's going to go, but sometimes, when the characters win over your heart and you're rooting for them to win, that's all that really matters.
Rating: 4 / 5 (Very Good)