Director: Akarsh Khurana
Writers: Kanika Dhillon, Aniruddha Guha
Cast: Taapsee Pannu, Priyanshu Painyuli, Supriya Pathak, Abhishek Banerjee, Supriya Pilgaonkar
Cinematographer: Neha Parti Matiyani
Editor: Ajay Sharma, Shweta Venkat
Streaming on: ZEE5
A progressive story is pointless if the storytelling is regressive. Under the guise of mainstream accessibility, complex issues are simplified to such an extent that the craft itself becomes incidental. Rashmi Rocket, for instance, is so satisfied with its novel intent – of exposing the archaic politics of gender testing in Indian athletics – that the medium feels like a shoddy afterthought. The movie is impeccably poor; it manages to be patronising in its treatment of both the underdog sports biopic and the self-righteous courtroom drama at once. At the risk of sounding like an existential parrot, I suppose this is the problem with a sizable chunk of commercial Hindi cinema today. Creative integrity is too often sacrificed at the altar of social significance. Unfortunately, "hashtag filmmaking" is here to stay.
On that cheerful note, let's have a one-sided discussion about the film at hand. I have only so many ways of writing "the execution is awful," but I'll try to be elaborate. Rashmi Rocket opens in 2014, with cops storming the women's hostel of the Indian Athletics Association and dragging a girl named Rashmi out of her room. Her startled "Kaun hai aap?" triggers a "con artist tu khud hai!" from an angry inspector. Now that the tone is set, the film flashes back to Rashmi's childhood. Given that the film's central conflict is gender identity, at least five onlookers wonder aloud "yeh chora hai ki chori? (is she a boy or a girl?)" when they see little Rash running across town wearing jeans under her frock. Lest this isn't enough to establish the theme, Rashmi grows up to be a bike-riding, whiskey-swigging, hot-headed (she slaps a wife beater) and trash-talking tomboy. In short, the writing takes the laziest possible route to suggest that all the future accusations of androgyny and high testosterone levels are not entirely unfounded. It comes within one same-sex relationship of being truly offensive.
Another aspect that got my goat is the setting. Rashmi is from Bhuj for all the wrong reasons – an excuse to feature the kite-flying festival Uttarayan (she's sprinting across town to catch a kite of course), a Garba song, the Rann of Kutch, and naturally, the Gujarat earthquake. The desert exists so that Rashmi's running talent is noticed by a group of army athletes when she sprints to prevent a soldier (who's listening to his walkman?) from stepping onto a landmine. Believe me, the scene looks more ridiculous than it sounds. The earthquake exists as an answer to the lyrical question: "Why is Rashmi running from her truth?". A flashback that's as subtle as a quake depicts the day little Rashmi quit the sport, because she was too busy winning a race to notice her father getting buried in the rubble.
Most of all, there is no understanding of Rashmi's tribal (Rabari) roots beyond the cosmetic superficiality of her neck tattoos and earrings. When she becomes a national champion, commentators and channels simply refer to her as the rocket from Gujarat – as though her small-town identity, and not the specificity of it, is more than enough to fashion the against-all-odds fairytale. It's one of 84 lost opportunities in a film that trades narrative design for the cultural depth of a jellybean. It's obvious that the Kutchi environment is more of a physical statement, likely to justify the brown-facing of yet another actress as well as her aesthetically bleached curls. Supriya Pathak's Ram Leela Lite presence aside, a scene-stealing actor from Scam 1992: The Harshad Mehta Story has been cast to offset the lack of Gujarati authenticity. Needless to say, he is spectacularly wasted.
There are other fatal problems with Rashmi Rocket. It features some of the most tackily filmed sports scenes I've seen in Hindi cinema – which is saying a lot. For a fictional biopic centered on Indian athletics in the era of Neeraj Chopra, it is unable to stage even the most elemental aspects of track running in a convincing manner. Some of the races look like a series of live-action slow-motion shots. For example, to make one runner appear faster, the others are visibly made to jog. The 4×100 relay race has no sense of rhythm; some shots appear to be totally missing during Rashmi's miraculous comeback leg. Granted that Rashmi is not a trained sprinter, but none of the performers in the film move like pro athletes. (What's the purpose behind Rashmi having not one but two evil rivals in the same team? It doesn't help that both look identical; apparently one is named Niharika and the other, Priyanka). I'm not asking for realism, but the least one can do is not make such a popular sport look like a Harry Potter fantasy game.
The courtroom portions, which account for virtually half the film, are constructed as one giant exposition device. A no-nonsense judge telling a lawyer to stop acting like he's in a Hindi film is not as meta as the makers imagine. There are a few nice touches – like the lawyer thrashing an incompetent journalist, or like Rashmi choosing to fight for all victims of the gender-testing scam – but the whole thing unfurls in the language of a question-answer session: to educate and enlighten the audience rather than stay true to the narrative. There is no visual respite, with the court arguments more focused on flaunting the research of the screenplay instead of winning the case. To contextualize Rashmi's 'unfair' physical advantage, the lawyer asks a witness if he knows who Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt are, to which the witness provides a perfect Wikipedia description of both the superstars. Even though Abhishek Banerjee's is the only decent performance in the film, his casting as Rashmi's lawyer is a strange effort to circumvent the male-saviour syndrome (of films like Pink). Not choosing an Amitabh Bachchan for the role doesn't change the status of the intellectual hero fighting in court to rescue a lifeless victim.
Taapsee Pannu's titular turn is curiously devoid of substance. It's not her fault so much as the makers, who seem to be content with the concept of competitive sports rather than the actual anatomy of it. As is the case with most A-list performers, certain go-to patterns – like the deer-in-headlights expression, the wilted-spirit voice – have characterised her performances over the years. While this tends to elevate the emotional intensity of films like Thappad and Manmarziyaan, the same patterns amplify the bullet-point monotony of Rashmi Rocket. As a result, the film reduces the actor to its level instead of the actor raising the film to hers.
But then again, I'm grateful for small mercies. At least the title isn't literal; Rashmi Rocket could have well been the fictional biopic of the first astronaut to land on Venus. Because men are apparently from Mars.