Chak De! India is arguably the gold standard for any contemporary Hindi film hoping to use sport as a showcase for this country’s complex multi-cultural landscape. Gender politics, a factious nation’s religious and regional tensions, and the inevitability of inter-personal rivalries in a team game all found a place in Shimit Amin’s fabulous 2007 film about the Indian women’s hockey team at the turn of the century finding its oxygen under a new coach, yet it appeared not to strain a nerve to sermonise. Chak De! is a hard act to follow.
Director Reema Kagti’s Gold sets itself on the same playing field — hockey, this time for men — but shifts its gaze to a period stretching from 1936 pre-Independence India to the first Olympics we played after the British left our shores. India, as we know from history texts, dominated world hockey for several decades back then. Cobbling a team together for the 1948 Olympics was a challenging task, however, for a fictional team manager called Tapan Das (Akshay Kumar), with Partition having robbed us of many of our great sporting talents. In this scenario, Tapanda battles his own alcoholism and a cynical hockey establishment, in addition to the parochial and class divisions within the team to get free India a gold, not so much for sporting glory and self realisation but to take revenge on our former colonisers.
In the tradition of several Akshay Kumar films of the past 3-4 years, Kagti — who earlier made the neatly irreverent Honeymoon Travels Pvt Ltd and the wonderfully mellow Talaash — goes full throttle into loud, chest-thumping nationalist territory for Gold. If a point has to be made, it is spelt out not once but repeatedly. If a personal experience has to be a source of inspiration for a brainwave on the hockey field, the dialogue from the earlier moment must be replayed, on the assumption perhaps that viewers are not bright enough to get the hint from the proceedings on screen. If two characters are going to be at war in the dressing room, then their potential clash is announced through a long song that stresses and re-stresses and further stresses their class differences, just in case the audience did not quite get it from the initial indicators of one chap’s evident wealth and the other’s evident lack of it. And when the national anthem plays in a scene that is truly and unexpectedly moving, the emotional resonance of the turn of events that preceded it is not deemed enough, the film’s patriotic fervour has to be underlined with a fluorescent marker in the form of one man — you can guess who — shouting “Vande Mataram.”
It is hard to understand why a filmmaker as gifted as Kagti could not see that there is melodrama and great beauty intrinsic to the story of a newly Independent and poor nation winning a hockey Olympic gold for the first time under its own flag. The failure to recognise this is Gold’s Achilles heel. When Kagti does manage to weave some moments of quiet into the larger tapestry of overstatement she is working on — such as that scene in which the team first realises they will be ripped apart by Partition, or the dynamics in the bar fight which almost destroys Team India, or the warmth between the former teammates turned rivals from India and Pakistan at Olympics 1948, and most of all the two hockey matches that dominate the closing half hour. These are the scenes in which we get to see what Gold could have been if it had not underestimated its audience or been overly anxious to cash in on the raucous, aggressive patriotism dominating the current national discourse.
Kagti has saved her best for Gold’s last 30 minutes, during which, despite all the film’s follies, I found myself cheering for the Indian team and welling up with emotion for them.
Of the cast, Sunny Kaushal and Amit Sadh play the only hockey players who are well fleshed out in the writing. The excellent Vineet Kumar Singh takes on the role of Imtiaz Ali Shah, captain of the undivided Indian team, giving his character far more heft than the screenplay affords. Akshay Kumar gets the most screen time, of course, as manager-cum-talent scout-cum-coach-cum-everything to the team, but delivers an awkward, uninspired performance in which his effort to be Bengali overshadows all else.
The oddest part of Gold is the fictionalisation of the hockey players who in reality won India a gold at the 1948 Olympics. Dhyan Chand and his teammates are all part of sporting legend in India, yet for some reason, instead of using the names of these men who did us proud and bringing their characters to life, we get made up names and characters based on their experiences in Gold instead. Yelling out “Vande Mataram” on screen can hardly compensate for this disservice to these great men.
Gold has its occasional redeeming moments, but for the most part it just skims the surface of a landscape once examined with such depth by Chak De! India.