Before Sultan and Dangal, there was Chak De! India. I have a vivid memory of the Shimit Amin film, released in 2007 when I was in school, and how it had impacted me. Shah Rukh Khan's presence as the former hockey player turned women's team coach was a large part of the impact. With time, however, I have revisited the film and found elements in it that did not fit my politics anymore. Chak De! India is a film that is not perfect by any means, but even after all these years what has still remained as my go-to film whenever I feel lost and defeated is only due to that one actor: Shah Rukh Khan.
That is exactly how one would describe the star in the one of his best roles to date. Khan let go of the movie-star persona fully to inhabit the body of a man who is defeated but never lost. In Kabir Khan, there is a fire that is internal: he pushes himself in the position of the coach of the women's hockey team as he says to one of the girls, "Har team mein ek gunda hota hai, aur is team ka gunda main hoon." (Every team has a brat, and in this team I'm the brat.) As his character's political inclinations are tried and tested, Khan has to shoulder the difficult task of preparing the team for glory. There is a burden on his shoulders, and he has to constantly strive for the best in his team. He understands each of the players, locates their misplaced differences and pushes them to give their very best. Before the final match, there is a particularly stirring speech and Khan nails the sequence as he says, and I translate, "In the coming years, no matter what happens, whether you win or lose…no body can take these seventy minutes away from you. I am not going to tell you how to play this game. Instead, you will tell me – by playing the game."
There is one image that has stayed with me in particular – and considering that we all know how the movie ends, I can safely include this spoiler. Just after the Indian team wins the match, Khan stands outside the field, transfixed. He is speechless, and it is in this moment he feels the burden lifted. In this shot, the Indian flag is placed just beside him and he holds his knees as if he is unable to stand. As if the rush of joy and eventual pride is too much for him to bear. It is all conveyed without a single word and Khan makes it all register, brilliantly.
Even when he does not say a word, that single shot has over the years stayed with me in different contexts. Why did he have to 'say' anything at all in his defence? Why does he have to prove that he is not a 'gaddar'? This became problematic to me as the years passed, as I realized that the film glorifies this fervent need to project one's interest with regards to nationalism. When Khan had lost the finals, he had displayed the spirit of sportsmanship by congratulating the winning team. This was portrayed in the media as an act of betrayal. Ever since then, he had to face extreme amounts of hatred and false allegations. This issue has become more pertinent than ever, in this time that we are living in. It also disturbed me how the film glorifies winning as the only way of living, as if there was no place for losers. When one of the players says, "Mar ke aayenge lekin haar ke nahin aayenge," it bothered me how one's life-force was considered secondary to the act of winning. When I watched the film for the first time as a child, none of these issues had bothered me. But with each new revisit, I have found myself questioning the film, disguised as a film about women but solely interested in the position of one man at the centre of it. Does it take away my love for the film? Does it take away the impact that Chak De! India has had on me? Not at all.
Even after all these years, what has remained unquestionably brilliant is Shah Rukh Khan's performance in the film. Chak De! India is a film that has continued to move me every single time, even after all these personal issues. The film, along with his performance, has seen me grow and develop into an individual with views and opinions. I try to imagine what Chak De! India would have become if it was made with a different actor, if it would have been half the film it is without his presence. With each new revisit, I discover something new and untapped in his performance, and by the time the film ends, his performance leaves me inspired and motivated to work harder and believe in myself. This is a performance that has become personal with time, over his other popular acts in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge or Devdas. This is the Shah Rukh Khan I like and want to hold on to, the actor who continues to grow inside the minds and hearts of his audience even after so many years and countless roles. This is the Shah Rukh Khan film that means the most to me. This is the Shah Rukh Khan I want to see.