Director: Reema Kagti
Cast: Akshay Kumar, Amit Sadh, Mouni Roy, Sunny Kaushal, Kunal Kapoor, Vineet Kumar Singh
I’m starting to think we wouldn’t have an Independence Day, or even a country, had Abbas-Mustan’s Khiladi flopped and not turned a certain Rajiv Bhatia into Akshay Kumar. Yet, 27 years later, here we are, being lectured yet again about the importance of being a proud Indian on the nation’s 72nd birth anniversary. Here we are, expected to be in awe of a superstar who insists on improving the nation on screen and entertaining our notions off it. Here we are, struggling to digest a ‘sports’ film solely designed to convince us that it is better to live in the past than fret about the present. Here we are, being reminded about where we were.
Gold is a lot of things, but most of all it is an Akshay Kumar movie. Which means it riffs on a moment in history that hopes to distort our reflection of the future. It accessorizes the gold-winning run of independent India’s first field-hockey team at the 1948 London Olympics. Much like the foundation of the Sandeep Singh hockey biopic Soorma, this is a remarkable story that needs no dramatizing. But tell that to today’s overzealous production houses, who seem to believe that film-making is all about heightening the idea of life rather than elevating it. I have no doubt that national cricket coach Ravi Shastri might be the first to find this film useful as instructional footage, given the team’s ongoing nightmare in hostile British conditions.
Gold opens with the images of star gymnast Dipa Karmakar and other female athletes singing Jana Gana Mana. Or this may have just been a new version of the mandatory pre-screening national anthem. With an Akshay Kumar movie, you can never really tell. This is followed by Kumar advising a tense chap to stop smoking and instead use the cigarette money to buy sanitary pads for his wife. I’m not sure what to make of this strange Pad Man flashback. But perhaps it hints at the possibility that Gold’s Tapan Das, a Bengali team manager who speaks like a North Indian man putting on a bad East Indian accent, is the predecessor of Laxmikant Chauhan, a middle-Indian man essaying the role of a South Indian visionary. Or it may just be the new anti-smoking ad.
Gold is a lot of things, but most of all it is an Akshay Kumar movie. Which means it riffs on a moment in history that hopes to distort our reflection of the future. It accessorizes the gold-winning run of independent India’s first field-hockey team at the 1948 London Olympics.
Kumar, in this sense, is stubbornly diverse. He refuses to play himself, lest his critics think he is just a sociopolitical crusader masquerading as a Bollywood actor. Here, he also plays an alcoholic, gambler and a soothsayer, just to be sure. He talks in slogans, shackled by the misguided self-awareness of a period film equipped with the hindsight of a template-ridden 2018 drama. Tapan, like Laxmi, “narrates” rather than speaks – he spends most of the film explicitly explaining his motivations and emotions (“200 years they ruled us. This is our chance to rule them!”).
Kumar is the reason Gold feels like Chak De! India without the Chak De. It’s mostly due to him that director Reema Kagti (Talaash) and co-writer Rajesh Devraj assault Gold with the greedy grammar of modern-day studio packages. The hockey motifs are the same: the center-forward conflict (Amit Sadh and Sunny Kaushal fill in for Preeti Sabarwal and Komal Chautala), Federation villainy, infighting and even the gameplay. But there’s more – we see images from Tapan’s marriage (casting a Bengali actress only exposes Kumar further), his phases of depression, romance, inspiration and ideation.
The British High Command is shown to be obsessed – in an evil hand-rubbing-conspiracy way – with the idea of defeating a former colony in an Olympic game. I’m quite sure they had more pressing issues to deal with in 1948. The film stops just short of suggesting that Cyril Radcliffe executed the Partition only so that Indian Hockey would take a beating once the Muslim players are sent away.
Some of the writing is needlessly perfunctory. Amit Sadh’s Raghuvir Pratap Singh, a posh aristocrat, is established with a scene that has him strip down to his underwear so that he can donate his clothes to a beggar and prove his ‘modesty’ to Tapan Das. Sadh misplays the concept of arrogance by constantly standing as if he were posing for a royal portrait. In a way, he’s playing Sourav Ganguly in the 1990s – Das also addresses him as ‘Dada,’ but then Das addresses everyone as Dada. There’s a sniggering head coach named Mr. Mehta, who exists solely to highlight Das as a roguish underdog. There’s the thread of Sunny Kaushal’s Himmat Singh, who must defeat privilege and regional politics to overcrowd Gold’s inferiority-complex palette.
There’s also Mouni Roy as Tapan’s wife, who convinces herself that she is no less than a freedom fighter by enabling her man and cooking for the entire team. And Nikita Dutta as Himmat’s girlfriend, who sits by the phone waiting for news of his success.
Gold actually opens with the final of the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The British-Indian Hockey team, led by Samrat (Kunal Kapoor, as a loose adaptation of Dhyan Chand), refuses to brandish the Nazi salute when Adolf Hitler enters the stadium. The scene is powerful – the few good men, a symbol of revolt and resistance, stand out in a sea of the silent and oppressed. The Germans stare in disbelief at the players. Some glare, willing them to respect the country’s regime. Others look around nervously, wondering if they are correctly sticking to protocol. The fear, and envy, is palpable. I could sense my hall full of viewers appreciating this gesture.
150 minutes later, these viewers promptly stood up when the Indian national anthem brought in the film’s climax. They stared in disbelief at those who remained in their seats. Some glared, willing us to respect the ways of the regime. Others looked around nervously, unsure of protocol, but programmed to salute the sounds of nationalism. Movies like Gold are defined by this irony.