There were three sports films that came out in 2007 — Dhan Dhana Dhan Goal, Say Salaam India, and Chak De! India. Even though the last one starred Shah Rukh Khan, c was not the one most people would have backed as a winner. First of all, the film was about hockey, which may once have been India's national sport but those days were long gone. Football, ostensibly the subject of Dhan Dhana Dhan Goal, was more popular and cricket was the national obsession, which Say Salaam India hoped to capitalise upon by showing its stars in cricket jerseys on the poster. Not just that, Chak De! India was an ensemble film. Khan's face may loom large on the poster, but he had to share screen time with a large supporting cast — most of whom were women. Add to that director Shimit Amin's limited experience. He had made only one film before this, and that was an action thriller. The writer, Jaideep Sahni, was more experienced, but could the writer of Bunty Aur Babli (2005) and Khosla ka Ghosla (2006) pull off a sports film?
The answer is yes. Chak De! India became one of the highest-grossing Hindi films of 2007, it is not just a good film, it's one that continues to feel relevant. The issues it highlights and the way it tells the story of a fictitious women's hockey team and a disgraced player seeking redemption remain impactful. Sahni was inspired to write the story after reading a newspaper article about the Indian women's hockey team's win at the 2002 Commonwealth Games. Coincidentally, last week, the Indian women's hockey won a bronze medal — for the first time since 2006 — at this year's Commonwealth Games. It's the kind of happenstance that would make us dream of a sequel, if the original film wasn't so satisfying.
Here are five reasons why Chak De! India is still one of our favourite Hindi films and the best among Bollywood movies in the sports genre.
When you have a film about a team sport, you know that the team members are going to promote the national motto of "unity in diversity". You also know that the team will begin as underdogs and then blossom into winners. Chak De! India stuck to the formulas on both counts. When we're introduced to young women players from various parts of the country, including Jharkhand, Mizoram and Manipur, it's clear that representation is important to the film. A few of the players are walking clichés. For example, Balbir (Tanya Abrol) is true to the stereotype of hotheaded Punjabis and doesn't hesitate to get into a fight, but is also fiercely loyal. Of course, there's a tomboy in the team (Chitrashi Rawat as the Haryanvi Komal Chautala). However, despite the profusion of stereotypes, none of them feels fake or artificial. It helps that the women look credibly real too, with diverse body types, skin tones and facial features.
Sahni's script also makes sure most of the players get to establish themselves as individuals. Some, like the captain who is juggling marriage and her sports career, get more screen time, but even with minor roles, Chak De! India makes an effort to show they're real people with real issues. They may be reduced to being one-dimensional by the outside world — like when players from Mizoram and Manipur are harassed in public by men who assume they're "easy" — but the film urges you to see there's more to them than the cliché.
One of the reasons Chak De! India's box office prospects were considered dubious is that there's no love story in the film. There isn't even a tiny, romantic sub-plot. Only two of the team members are in relationships and one of those falls spectacularly apart (admit it, you cheered when Preeti, played by Sagarika Ghatge, told her arrogant cricketer boyfriend to buzz off). Coach Kabir Khan does not fall in love with anyone in the course of training the team, but he does find friendship, as do the other players. Kabir and the assistant coach Krishna (Vibha Chibber) are friends, as are Vidya (Vidya Malvade) and Kabir. Chak De! India is one of those rare films from Bollywood that understands how special it is to have a work friend with whom you have an entirely platonic intimacy and shared understanding.
Amin also showed friendships between women, which is something Bollywood has rarely showcased in its stories. The team members who have played together before — like Bindia (Shilpa Shukla) and Gunjan (Shubhi Mehta) — have one kind of closeness. We see new friendships develop, like the one between Balbir and Soimoi (Nisha Nair). Preeti and Komal go from being bitter rivals to each other's champions. Basically, by the end of the film, the hockey team is Team Womance, and we're here for it.
Fun fact: If you look up Chak De! India on Wikipedia, the cast list includes the name of the actor, the character they played and the position that their character has in the hockey team. Sahni's script doesn't get into the technicalities of hockey, but the story looks at different aspects of what it means to be a sportsperson. From dealing with the media that wants sensational headlines to the apathy of the officials working at the Sports Authority of India and the rivalries that inform how someone plays the game (both on and off the field), Chak De! India did an excellent job of showing what goes into being a sportsperson in India. The film also made sure that there were no black-and-white characters. Kabir may be the hero of the story, but he does cast himself as a villain when he pushes the players too hard. Also, while focusing on Kabir, Chak De! India makes sure he shares the spotlight with the team.
Conventionally, if you can spot one genuinely strong woman character in a Bollywood film, then it's time to pop the champagne. Chak De! India had a dozen. Every player in the Indian women's hockey team is a firecracker in her own right and the film makes sure we know it. Perhaps one of the best-written characters is Bindia, who is the most experienced in the team and Kabir's antagonist for most of the film. Shukla was given a well-written character and she lit up the screen, bringing all of Bindia's angularities and complexities out through her performance. The only blemish in the characterisation was the scene in which Bindia offers to sleep with Kabir in order to be made captain of the team. It didn't fit in with the fiery pride that characterises Bindia otherwise.
Chak De! India also stands out for showing that having strong women characters doesn't emasculate a male lead. Shah Rukh Khan's Kabir is surrounded by dynamic, impressive and beautiful women, but that doesn't take away from his own charisma.
He's known as King Khan for his romances and we've all loved his overacting in melodramatic films, but Chak De! India showed a very different side to the superstar. Khan delivered one of his career-best performances as Kabir and for once, he played the character with restraint. Instead of weeping copiously, he shed a single tear. Instead of quivering with rage, he stayed still and let the tension radiate through the stiffness of his body language. And his delivery of the "70 minutes" monologue, on the eve of the team's final match, was pitch perfect.