First things first! 'Chak De India' is an outright winner. A triumph of the spirit, and of craftsmanship!
While director Shimit Amin of 'Ab Tak Chhappan' fame has crafted a film with immense staying power and exceptional integrity and gusto, the thought-process behind the endearing endeavour harks back to a series of well-crafted Hollywood films about team spirit, the low-spirited team and the burnt-out disgraced and exiled coach who motivates the team and galvanises his own dormant spirit into a wide-alert status.
Dig in. It's all there. And yet writer Jaideep Sahni takes the expected tale to heights of great expectations with an endearing tone of expression.
Amin turns the triumph-of-spirit formula inside out.
While narrating a fairly predictable story of a down-and-out all-girls' hockey team's journey into global triumph, the director brings into play a kind of abiding charisma that's born out of a sincere passion for a neglected sport and that even more neglected spirit of collective aspirations.
A certain formulism runs through all films about seeming losers who triumph on the field against all cynicism. But beyond that elementary reading there ticks a substantial heart of gold in this tale of molten motivations.
The question of the Indian Muslim's identity in the face of an often-suspicious majority surfaces early in the clenched narration, as Kabir Khan (Shah Rukh) is accused of selling-out a crucial game of hockey to Pakistan.
Amin and his writer don't let you down. Every grim layer of 'message' is toned down and polished up to highlight and accentuate the cinematic quality without losing out on sheer relevance of the moment and its after-shocks.
The ragged bunch of girls from all over the country gather under one umbrella to give the cynics a run for their money. You watch them with a distant curiosity, which soon evolves into a keen interest in their progress report.
The game never looks contrived. And the greenroom chat is filled with punctuations of immense mirth. Happily, the film never lapses into a verbose rendering of the awakening conscience.
By the time the director and his grim protagonist get a grip over the girls' athletic abilities and their blind spots we are completely hooked, watching not the socio-political issues but a film that pushes the envelope by taking the formula film on a jaunty journey across a craggy hockey field.
The dialogues are quite often the stuff bumper stickers are made of. 'There's room for only one goonda in this team, and that's me,' the snarling coach tells team bully Bindiya Naik, played with instinctive strength by Shilpa Shukla.
The drama emanates in a rush of warm feelings from the interactive tensions between pairs from the team, for instance the vain Marathi player Preeti Sabarwal (Sagarika Ghatge) and the diminutive 'mirchi' from Haryana Komal Chautala (Chitrashi Rawat) or for that matter the flavourful frisson between the ostracised Kabir and the hockey federation which collectively sneers at his aspirations for the all-girls' hockey team.
Of course, you know it's all going to come together in a magnificent whoosh of athletic splendour at the end.
Still, you are completely hooked, enraptured and in total empathy with the girls as they head for Melbourne to bring back the gold medal for a neglected game. By the time the girls get into bordered white saris you are smiling protectively at these children from the third world.
Idealistic and dreamy? You bet! Isn't that what cinema was always meant to be?
'Chak De India' takes us back to the joyous days of watching movies where the heroes began by being unfairly cut down to size and then progressed to being warriors of the dark night fighting their way out of the negativity that surrounds their dreams.
Several sequences stand out for their glorious grip over the grammar of cinema. The sequence at McDonald's, where the hockey team beats up a gang of eve teasers, is so deliciously fulfilling you want to applaud the writer and director for manoeuvring the gender war into an urbane recreational zone without trivialising the larger issues involved.
In terms of the tight but unobtrusive technique applied to Amin's narration 'Chak De India' qualifies as one of the finest sports-based dramas in living memory, on par with the poignant sportsmanship of 'Chariots Of Fire', if only there was theme music to match the other film.
The editing is never cruel to the sportive spirit. We get to watch the girls playing hockey for as long as required without being subjected to redundant visual hammering.
Finally though, the film is a triumph for Shah Rukh Khan. Stripped of the lover-boy image, unadorned by the romantic props that have given his super starry image that supple longevity and power, Shah Rukh stares straight into his character Kabir's conscience and isn't afraid to mirror some uncomfortable home truths about how we treat our minorities, be it the Muslim Indian, the publicly active woman - watch the arrogant cricket player smirk at his hockey-playing fiancee's dreams - or just the female gender trying to be on a par with the opposite sex.
The girls on the team remain with you after their on-field victory because there's a far larger victory navigating their karma to a final hurrah.
Beyond the tale of the triumph of the spirit, there lies the triumph of the spirit of cinema.
After a point it doesn't matter whether the girls are playing hockey.
It's not the sport. It's the spirit that shines through in every glistening frame of this tale that needed to be told before hockey became as obsolete as films about people who play to redeem their souls.