Director: Shubham Singh
Cast: Lukram Smil, Manjot Singh, Shashank Arora, Kay Kay Menon
Cinematographer: Mateusz Golebiewski
Streaming on: Netflix

Penalty is the kind of simplistically crafted, shabbily conceived and naive football film that ends up harming the Beautiful Game infinitely more than celebrating it. The story of a Manipuri player being treated as an outsider at a football-centric Lucknow university is told with the sort of blissful ignorance that only reinforces racist stereotypes instead of serving as a cautionary tale against discrimination.

Think Nagesh Kukunoor’s Iqbal, but without a sense of tropes, timing, sport, performance, and more literal with its “outcast” metaphors. For instance, hero Iqbal was deaf and mute for viewers to equate economic disenfranchisement with physical disadvantage. The symbolism is almost offensive on paper, but the movie still managed to pull off the basic beats of an underdog narrative. Ditto for Goal, the popular football film where a Mexican migrant who trials for EPL club Newcastle United has an asthma problem to highlight his outsiderness. But Shubham Singh’s Penalty comes from a space that sacrifices self-awareness at the altar of binary entertainment.

The football action is awfully shot, the dribbling is laughable, the goalkeeping is non-existent, and the camerawork/editing doesn’t do much to disguise the lack of professionalism

At one point, after being rejected by the xenophobic coach (Kay Kay Menon) of a college that is apparently famed for producing national players, the protagonist, Lukram, joins a ragtag team of “rejects” called the Street Army. The smiling coach introduces him to the players one by one – the first had an alcoholic father who abandoned him at a traffic signal, the second and third are deaf and mute, the fourth is all of the above, and all of them are also orphans. In short, the writers of the film equate North-east Indian heritage with not just social but also physical and mental disability. One may argue that the makers want to prove it’s the locals who perceive North-easterners this way, but the intellectually diminished script does very little to distinguish between the two gazes.

It’s bad enough for a sports film to be so culturally awry, but it’s worse when the technical level is irredeemable. The football action is awfully shot, the dribbling is laughable, the goalkeeping is non-existent, and the camerawork/editing doesn’t do much to disguise the lack of professionalism – it’s as if a bunch of five-year-olds were passing the ball to one another. When it’s repeatedly mentioned that the university is “18-time state champions,” the skillset on screen matters. The coach’s opening monologue spends seven minutes being the complete antithesis of Chak De’s corny but rousing “I play for India” scene: The theme here is “If you are the best, there’s nothing left to play for. Be better instead”. His closing monologue tries to make us empathize with his racism; you see, he too once fell prey to the ‘Eastern monopoly’. Joker called, he wants his victim card back. His office looks like a trophy store that’s converted into an office. His assistant, played by a bemused Shashank Arora, is the good coach to his bad coach – he believes in Lukram but gets disillusioned by the institutional racism. There’s also an obese third coach, who exists solely to order food and look like a buffoon. Kay Kay Menon tries his best to believe the words that come out of his mouth, but falls woefully short of invoking his Muslim-hating character from Mumbai Meri Jaan.

Lukram’s arc isn’t very complex either. He has a disapproving father. His roommate is the quintessential jokey Sikh boy named Ishwar (an eternally young Manjot Singh). When he is two weeks late for the trials because of an earthquake, Ishwar accompanies him to convince the assistant coach. His name is belatedly pencilled into the sheet, but the next thing we see, even Ishwar is part of the trials. What did I miss? Lukram also randomly falls for a friendly girl (Pooja, of course) in between and learns Hindi from the library to write her a love letter. Once Lukram is selected to be on the college team, his North Indian teammates accuse him of being a weak link who “is a right-wing player, so how dare he plays on the left-wing?”. The irony: one could say the same about this film, too.

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