Question, not necessarily needing answer. Is Chak De! India a feminist film?
For those unlucky, unlucky people who haven’t seen it: it’s the archetypical sports film, charting the rise of the team of no-hopers to international champions, with the unusual characteristic that the team in question is the Indian women’s national hockey team. (Field hockey is India’s national sport. Don’t pretend to be unsurprised.)
Also, it’s pretty fantastic. I watched it again recently and Andrew ended up drawing up a chair so he could read the subtitles, and we cheered and groaned in the right places. I highly recommend this vid as a much better introduction to it, and, in fact, a just a brilliant vid in general. I’ve recommended it before, it’s fabulous.
And on the face of it, it ought to be a feminist film. It’s a film about women’s success, after all – women succeeding at something together. It passes the Bechdel test in every scene. It’s about power, and how to find it. The problem, though, is that the main protagonist is not one of the women – he’s their coach, Kabir Khan (Shah Rukh Khan, who else), who’s coaching them after, years before, having been accused of throwing an India v. Pakistan match, and their success redeems him. And nowhere is it more obvious that it’s his story is the fact the film begins and ends with him – the women have their individual arcs, but these are resolved, literally, over the credits – the closing shot of the film is of Khan returning to his childhood home.
And further, the individual arcs of the women are not always given the attention they deserve, either. While they all have stories, it’s notable that the ones that get the most time are Vidya, Preeti, and Bindia, the three middle-class city girls. Which isn’t to say their stories don’t have feminist undercurrents – I absolutely love that the film doesn’t, for a second, avoid the point that these women’s families think their dedication to their sport makes them unmarriagable, and doesn’t avoid the choices they have to make.
But I wanted more about Soimoi, a woman from Jharkhand whose Hindi is limited and English non-existent, who gets called junglee by the others, and about Mary and Molly, Christians from the north-east who get called “foreign” rather than Indian. My favourite is Komal, who is tiny and determined (hey, guess why I love her), and is going to play hockey rather than get married. What I mean to say is, all the dynamics of bias other than gender are right there for you to see, it is in no way a perfect film.
But at the same time… I suspect to analyse this film from a Western feminist perspective is interesting but not helpful. This is India we’re talking about – India, and Indians, and it’s this post that reminded me today of Chak De! India, this is the country where a woman needs a broken mirror to go and see a film.
Which brings me to the point of all of this, really: that scene, That notorious scene, near the beginning of the film, which I remember everyone talking about when the film was first released, some in disgust, but most with a quiet understated glee. Simply put: a man makes a crude remark at a professional female athlete in public. She ignores him. He tries it on again. She tries harder to ignore him. Her friend, also a professional athlete, loses her temper and punches him in the face. He gets pissed off and calls over his friends. And then fifteen other professional athletes punch him in the face.
Look, watch it.
(My apologies – I couldn’t find a subtitled version. The only dialogue you really need, though, is the bit where SRK is holding the guy with the cricket bat against the wall – he’s telling him he’s a bastard and not to hit people from behind.)
And okay, I do not think violence is the answer, and this is a fantasy. But I defy you not to enjoy it. I really do. And that goes for the film as a whole – which, for all its failings, is about brown women being awesome. And, you know, I am okay with that.