Do you remember feeling furious when the star hockey player Preeti is told to quit playing “gilli danda” by her cricketer boyfriend in Chak De! India (2007)? Or feeling a seething anger when Mithali Raaj’s own father and grandmother don’t believe in her ability to play cricket in Shabaash Mithu (2022)? Nearly every sports film about women athletes is bound to have a scene of this kind, in which characters become mouthpieces for widely-held sexist prejudices. It’s a classic trope, designed to needle the audience into aligning themselves with the woman protagonist and cheering for her, rather than siding with those who stand opposed to her.
While we wait for R. Balki’s upcoming film Ghoomer — about a young woman athlete whose career is interrupted by tragedy, but who is able to rise past seemingly-impossible challenges — here’s a look at some of Hindi cinema’s favourite tropes when telling the stories of sportswomen.
If you have seen Shaabash Mithu, you’ll remember the scene in which Taapsee Pannu asks the cricket board to fulfil some “basic needs” of the women’s team – “more matches, travel facilities, clothes that have their names.” But Brijendra Kala, who plays the head of the board, refuses on the grounds that the women’s cricket team has little chance of winning. She attempts to counter him by pleading, “Sir, even we have an identity.” At this point, Kala calls in the peon stationed outside the conference room and asks if the other man recognises the name of any of the female cricketers present. The peon can rattle off the names of male cricketers but doesn’t know anyone on the women’s team. “That’s your identity,” says Kala’s character to the gathered women.
The scene is supposed to evoke a visceral reaction — and perhaps even hold a mirror to — in the audience, and immediately establish the stakes of what the female athletes are up against. It is not just about learning and perfecting the technicalities of the game, but also navigating this barrier of prejudice where not just strangers, but people who are supposed to be on your side, like the cricket board, dismiss the women. Films featuring male athletes will usually have a similar scene, but sexism adds a layer to the trope when the protagonists are women.
It's often coach Kabir Khan's 'Sattar (70) Minute' monologue that lingers in people's memories more than Vidya's triumphant goalkeeping at the conclusion of Chak De! India. To some extent, the credit for this has to go to Shah Rukh Khan being the scenestealer, but it’s also a fact that if the athlete is a woman, chances are that her coach is a man who lives in the limelight. Cases in point: Dangal (2016), Saala Khadoos (2016), Chhalaang (2020), to name a few.
As is apparent from the spatial arrangement on the poster of Chak De! India, where Shah Rukh Khan occupies a substantial portion, this recurring element elevates the male coach to a position of disproportionate importance. But this isn’t limited to the poster: The narrative itself creates an illusion, making it seem as if the team of women are reliant on the coach’s enthusiastic support. To Chak De! India’s credit, when the women do ultimately prove themselves, the film keeps Kabir on the sidelines of the match (literally, rather than figuratively).
In Dangal, a significant portion of the film revolves around a rivalry between Mahavir Singh Phogat (Aamir Khan) and Geeta's new coach, Pramod Kadam, portrayed by Girish Kulkarni.Kadam is eager to claim credit for her victory in the Commonwealth Games. Curiously, this dynamic momentarily shifts the focus away from Geeta's (Fatima Sana Shaikh) talent, shifting attention to the competitiveness between the two men instead. The camera even dedicates more screen time to Mahavir Singh confined to a room, while Geeta engages in her pivotal final match.
Traditionally, the definition of what signifies feminine has been very narrow in Hindi cinema and being sporty wasn’t an acceptable trait in this worldview. In Dangal for example, when Geeta starts applying nail polish and grows out her hair, her sporting performance sees a considerable dip. However, after removing the nail polish, which we interpret as her renewed dedication to the sport, there is a visible improvement in her performance.
Chak De! India approached this issue differently — the film introduces us to characters like Preety and Vidya (Vidya Malvade), who embrace their femininity, and do not think being feminine is incompatible with their identity as a sportsperson. It also features characters like Balbir (Tanya Abrol) and Bindia (Shilpa Shukla), who break from traditional notions. This is all done without bringing too much attention to their bodies, as if the variation can be, and should be taken for granted.
Since then, there are more on-screen women athletes who don’t have to sacrifice their femininity at the altar of sport have become more of a norm. Inspired by real-life women like Mary Kom (famous for having immaculately painted nails under her boxing gloves), women athletes in movies have been given the space to be both feminine as well as sporty. For instance, Panga (2020) sees a woman be a mother and a kabaddi player.
It’s the classic choice for women: Achieve professional success by embracing the identity of athletes, but in exchange, the domestic and traditionally feminine aspects of their life has to suffer. To some extent, this trope mirrors the real world and casts a critical light on existing structures that offer scant support for working mothers and other women who want to be more than domestic goddesses. While films like Dangal show just how all-consuming it can be to train to be a world-class athlete, others like Mary Kom (2014) and Panga (2020) present stories in which supportive husbands willingly shoulder homemaking duties while their wives stage their comebacks in sports.
By the close of the film, the focus invariably shifts from enabling female athletes to a display of patriotism as the athlete in question represents the country in a tournament. When written well, the film’s patriotic moments persuade the audience to rise above their misgivings and ingrained preferences to rally for their nation as represented by the film’s protagonist. The essence of this theme revolves around the notion that love for the country has the power to dissolve our differences and biases, effectively stitching us together with the thread of patriotism. Underlying such climaxes is a subtle but loaded question: Will one let biases against a female athlete sway them, or will they stand by their homeland?