In a country like India, the word 'patriotism' comes with a meaning of its own. Though it technically means 'love for one's land,' for us it becomes tricky as there is no one land to love, no one festival or culture to be proud of. Loving India entails loving everything that is inherently a part of it – every state, every language, every culture – without making any part feel like the other. Shimit Amin's Chak De India provides a fascinating insight into the same.
The film tells the story of an underdog women's hockey team that rises against all odds, led by their resilient coach Kabir Khan (Shah Rukh Khan), to clinch the world championship. However, at the core, it is about people shedding their prejudices to come together as one.
It is interesting that hockey is at the center of the plot, which helps underline in an ironical way how we have gradually come to ignore our own national sport, our national heritage, in pursuit of more populist and profitable sports ventures like cricket. And yet, belonging to a place of mediocrity or under-accomplishment for years now, we haven't disposed of our ego, or let go of that cocooned pride.
When director Shimit Amin and writer Jaideep Sahni establish the girl's team in a slick montage, the focus remains on the players' diversity and all the underlying issues about it that need our attention. Through a secondary character who acts as the gateway, we see where each of these players stands from a myopic, generalised viewpoint. It's a place where girls from the North-East are treated as guests in their own country, where a Telugu girl is casually asked how different she could be from a Tamil girl, and girls from Jharkhand are casually mocked about being 'from the circus.'
But it's not just the gatekeeper who holds all these biases – it's the girls as well. In a series of small scenes, it is established that the girls find enough reasons to fight and bicker within themselves – sometimes it is a matter of grudges borne out of class-divide, or simply a case of insensitivity towards each other. In that sense, Chak De India nudges us towards reflecting whether we are all the same, whether we are the perpetrators and the sufferers at once. It takes a man from the minority to teach us otherwise.
But that is not Kabir Khan's particular intention. His goals are clear – to redeem himself respectfully after years of disgrace, and to teach a talented team the right way to play. That's where the metaphor kicks in – where the hockey field represents life and the right playing technique probably stands for the right way to live our lives, as we gradually realise.
Chak De India also makes an interesting point about how both local and national pride are crucial for progress. Their local identities are strongly established in their first scenes, when Kabir Khan asks the players to introduce themselves, they do so by mentioning their own states and regions, establishing their great pride in the same. However, as Khan later clarifies, the individualistic pride ceases to matter when you sign up to play for a national team. It only means that you stop seeing yourself as a small self-driven cog in this large wheel of a world, and instead think of yourself more as an equal part of the greater good, where each part is equally important.
This is where Chak De India clearly demarcates the ideas of patriotism and jingoism – focusing on the idea of putting your team ahead of yourself as a gesture of love for your nation, and yet without demeaning anybody else – unlike jingoism which is almost always in relation to others, and mostly comes at the cost of belittling others in an aggressive manner. At one point in the film, the metaphor becomes a little too literal where Kabir Khan, in a moment of scary aggression, reprimands a player for moving herself ahead on the field, instead of passing the ball.
This idea remains integral to the plot till the very end. By the time we reach the film's climax, all the other conflicts have been resolved except one – the two strikers, Preeti (Sagarika Ghatge) and Komal (Chitrashi Rawat) continue to battle out a cold war of their own, in a quest to be the highest goal-scorer, but more importantly, to outdo each other at any cost. It could only be a coincidence, but looks perfectly scripted that Preeti and Komal belong to Punjab and Haryana respectively, two states that once belonged together, but became more alienated with passing time on the grounds of class and social strata, amongst others.
The film's final conflict is resolved when Komal decides to let go of her insecurities and passes the ball to Preeti to score a crucial goal in the final. In a world where achievements and victories have become more and more self-driven, the idea of sports remaining one of the last flag-bearing institutions of community and integration is used very movingly in this film. If you can't pass the ball, you cannot call yourself a true team player, a patriot.
The characterisation of Bindiya Naik (Shilpa Shukla), the team's rebel-without-a-cause, is another fabulous stroke. She is the most senior player on the team, and yet possesses a strong persecution complex. So, her insecurities reflect in creating a villain out of the strict coach who pushes her a little too hard, staging a boycott and refusing to cooperate – until she is made to realise how despite all her antagonising, she still remains crucial to their team's success. That little validation is all Bindiya needed, we realise – to get on board.
In another telling moment, Kabir Khan keeps insisting on his search for good intentions, instead of strength, in these talented but selfish players – a quality that he strongly believes is essential for their victory. But their victory just doesn't arrive when the captain Vidya saves the final penalty goal – rather, it keeps happenings in small doses throughout their journey, marked by moments where they overcome their weaknesses and choose the path of helping each other out.
And of course, the very premise of the film comprises the redemption of a man who had been labeled as a traitor and ostracised years ago, purely on account of his religion.
Early on in the film, Kabir Khan is seen leaving his ancestral house, defeated. As he returns 7 years later after having successfully silenced the naysayers and proven his loyalty to the nation, though we feel happy for his redemption, we feel sad that he had to go through this litmus test in the first place. A Kabir Khan wouldn't simply be accepted by creating a good team for the world cup, his true acceptance only occurs when he helps win the cup, an expectation that is not held for the other coaches from the 'majority'. A Kabir Khan is expected to prove his loyalty towards the nation, instead of merely declaring it.
Chak De India comes dangerously close to endorsing this view, instead of just depicting it. However, in a brilliant stroke of screenwriting, after initially establishing the agony of our wounded protagonist, the narrative never brings it up again. Kabir Khan almost hides in the backdrop, focusing on bringing the team together instead, on bringing out the best in the team. Though we never forget the injustice meted out to Kabir, and we are sure Kabir himself hasn't forgotten it either, he rather chooses to focus on his aim with all the professionalism of the world like anyone else. His patriotism is now entirely about his job, he doesn't need to do anything more – and this holds true for all of us.
This is where Chak De India becomes relatable. We do not need to make any grandiose gestures to prove our patriotism. We just need to do our work with sincerity and honesty – the rest follows, and that's what makes us true patriots.