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Chak De India is good. But why blame cricket?
by Boria Majumdar
Aug 20, 2007
Entwining a tale about nationalism with a narrative concerning the neglected state of Indian women’s hockey, Chak De India successfully brings a known story of indifference and discrimination into mainstream discourse, illuminating how modern Indian women’s sport remains trapped within the traditional gender stereotypes. By contrast, women’s sport worldwide, the film effectively demonstrates by taking the viewer to the West, has moved far beyond the contours of segregation and into a realm of the globalized games ethic. Yet, in achieving this, Chak De remarkably uses conventional theoretical tropes to accommodate markers like cultural values, issues of identity, and the nationalist dream.

To start with, one is expected to be somewhat skeptical about Chak De assuming it to be yet another exemplar of the nationalism-sports complex on the eve of independence day, using the sympathetic trope of mistreated women hockey players and the Shahrukh Khan phenomenon to attract the box office. However, in reality the film beautifully blends the agonies of a failed Muslim sportsman with the larger narrative of gender discrimination in sport. It fruitfully attends to the sensitive issues of identity and prejudice that a botched sportsman from the minority community faces, while eventually helping him triumph in the face of acute adversity.

The film opens with Shahrukh Khan being ostracized nationwide for missing a crucial penalty stroke in the hockey world cup final against Pakistan. And at the root of this ostracism is a sensationalist media, yet another defining marker of modern Indian sport. The tag of traitor labeled by the media results in his banishment from civil society and he only surfaces seven years later as an interviewee, the only candidate determined to coach India’s national women’s hockey team. The sixteen women picked to represent the country are a strange mix from multiple backgrounds, status groups and customs giving the viewer an idea of the arduous task that awaits the coach.

Throughout Chak De is evident one of the most central concepts of sports studies: the games ethic, a universalized form of the once well-known muscular Christianity. In the film, different combinations of the ethic highlight and esteem different degrees of sportsmanship and morality, leaving ample room for conflicts and misunderstandings between individuals. Using complex and variegated characters, the filmmaker has set as rivals several versions of the ethic against each other, and then revealed how these are refashioned as the players learn to labor mutually towards a common goal. For example, both Preeti and Komal, the teams leading strikers, embody the virtues of a pure games ethic, a certain flair that other players don’t have. Yet both are ruthlessly ambitious and at times unwilling to concede ground to one another. In the end, however, the team ethic triumphs with Komal passing the ball to Preeti to score the all important goal in the final and Pretti doing her bit in letting Komal take her penalty stroke. These acts demonstrate a degree of maturity, discipline, and self-control, once again symptomatic of the ‘good’ games ethic, drawing attention to the fact that for true sportswomen the game is all that matters.

Chak De scores over other sports films in not overly glamorizing its proponents and in depicting the harsh realities associated with the women’s game in India. After a hard practice session women hockey, football and cricket players in India are indeed expected to wash up in dingy and dirty toilets and it is only when something extraordinary happens that multinational sponsors queue up to ride high on their success. That the Indian team was in awe seeing their Australian counterparts practice in state of the art gymnasiums is yet another harsh reality. For example our national women’s cricket team, despite making the final of the world cup, gets to tour abroad only when the premier championship returns again. India’s women footballers on the other hand often live in penury after retirement only to be rescued from such plight by ardent sports fans or dedicated NGO’s. This is why the Haryana girl’s hiring an auto, while bargaining the fare with her mother in tow, after returning in triumph from the world cup doesn’t raise eyebrows. Also, Vindiya Naik’s failed effort to becoming captain too is commonplace in Indian hockey. Players are often subject to exploitation, evinced from the following comment by Aslam Sher Khan in his autobiography, “I had been selected to play for Bhopal in the National Hockey Championship in Ernakulam in 1969. I was dropped for the semi-final because I refused to join the 55-year old coach of the team in bed.”

The one thing Chak De may have done without are the constant jibes at cricket. The film inadvertently blames cricket for the dire state of Indian hockey. It portrays India’s cricket vice-captain as a snob and almost tries to universalize this role for cricketers. Again, Shahrukh’s witty dialogue during the scuffle at the restaurant when a mobster intends to hit one of his players from behind with a cricket bat, “In hockey we don’t have eunuchs, don’t try hitting from behind”, does little to add to the films respectability. This is where Chak De fails. It is unsuccessful in understanding why cricket has taken a surge over hockey. The answer, however, lies in the film itself—the timing of the growth of a sensationalist media rooted in television. When India won the hockey world cup in 1975 television was still in its infancy in India. In contrast the 1983 world cup was broadcast live to Indian homes by Doordarshan, which had grown manifold during the 1982 Asian Games. Unfortunately for hockey, India lost the final to Pakistan 1-7 in these games. The defeat was partly due to a poor performance from Mir Ranjan Negi, India’s goalkeeper and then legendary hockey coach on whose life the film is based.

Rather than trying to compare the sports in terms of black and white, Chak De would have done well to analyze the shades of gray as it so well does with all the other issues portrayed in the film.
 
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