At the Tokyo Olympics this year, a spirited Indian women's hockey team beat the favourites Australia; the Indian men's hockey team won an Olympic medal after 41 years; Neeraj Chopra won the country's first ever gold in Athletics. Every time the nation achieves and celebrates a moment of victory in sports, the unofficial national sporting anthem, Chak De! India plays. So here, I look back at 14 glorious years of Chak De! India, starring Shah Rukh Khan as coach Kabir Khan, accompanied by an Indian National Women's Hockey team that captured the collective imagination of the country and left an indelible mark on its collective psyche.
It's not like Hindi cinema did not have stirring sports dramas before Chak! De. Lagaan, Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar are great examples of films that made a mark. However, as is the case with sports-based dramas, they tend to be about the underdog overcoming the insurmountable. The overarching motif of these films is about defeating the villain of the story. This is where Chak De! India scores because of its unique story/screenplay by Jaideep Sahni. There is no actual villain that needs to be defeated. It is not interested in the conventional underdog trope but wants to look internally and address issues that the country faces such as bigotry (Kabir is Muslim and is ostracised after losing a final to Pakistan), casual sexism (the women's team has to play a match against the men's team to be deemed fit for the World Cup), administrative politics in sport (the administration members call them "chakla belan chalane wali auratein"), regional bias (members of the team from the North East and are treated like guests/outsiders) and rivalry within the team (the two forwards do not see eye to eye).
As a common saying in sport goes, it is either a coach's team or a captain's team. In the film, although the team is clearly the coach's and the film itself is largely about Kabir's journey, it focusses on the women and how their collective progress allows Kabir his redemption.
The film works because in some very smart manoeuvres, it gives a message of unity in diversity. For instance, when Preeti who is late to the camp argues with Kabir about being the captain of a state team and that he can't keep her out, he rightfully retorts, "I am the coach of the Indian National Women's team. Mujhe states ke naam na sunaayi dete hai na dikhai dete hai, sirf ek Mulk ka naam sunai deta hai-India". With this one dialogue, the film tells us its motivations without any kind of jingoistic fuss. This motivation is further displayed in the energetic Badal Pe Paon Hai where a beautiful shot focuses on the backs of the girls all wearing jumpers with India written in bold. That one moment captures the shift where the girls, who had started by playing for selfish reasons were now only playing for the country as one unit.
The performances and casting are pitch perfect. Chak De! made Shah Rukh Khan lose his vanity and shoulder the film with 16 new actors for company, none paired romantically opposite him. His turn as the brooding, tough, gruffy alpha yet emotional man who is seeking redemption is still considered to be one of his finest acts. An example is the climax scene where he finally gets vindicated and just emotes through his body and eyes, making for a gripping watch. The actors cast as the players were perfect, allowing the makers to include the eccentricities that would come along with their regional backgrounds, making for entertaining feuds, language barriers and a female perspective of camaraderie (the senior pros and their chemistry with the newbies in the team). The novelty of seeing unknown faces play hockey was helped by the realistic sports choreography by Rob Miller.
The film also had some intense as well as heartfelt dialogues. But ultimately it is the music by Salim-Suleiman that keeps Chak! De India alive even today, with the title track becoming the country's unofficial sports anthem. Sung by the indomitable Sukhwinder Singh, the song had an earworm worthy tune and was visually set against training montages, giving it the urgency and energy that a track like this would need. Lines like kuch kariye kuch kariye, nas nas meri khaule automatically depict the tenacity and the undying spirit of a nation and its sportspeople, making it everybody's favourite. The other songs like the soulful Maula Mere Le le Meri Jaan provided the emotional heft to the film and Kabir's journey.
Chak! De India made it mainstream to have sports stories focussing on women. It made people take notice of sports other than cricket, redefining how films of the genre were made. With the effective use of music and sports choreography, Chak De! has become the benchmark that every film thereafter has strived to achieve, making the film a milestone and a cult classic in Hindi cinema.