The love triangle, so beloved of Old Bollywood, appears to have been replaced by the triangular bromance, and any film with three men at its centre reminds us, inevitably, of Dil Chahta Hai – so let’s get done with that comparison first. Yes, Abhishek Kapoor’s Kai Po Che, based on Chetan Bhagat’s The 3 Mistakes of My Life, has a few surface similarities with Farhan Akhtar’s zeitgeist-defining film. Here too we have a man gifted with a rare talent; a man who has to learn things the hard way; and a man in the middle, content to live life. But the films couldn’t be more different. Dil Chahta Hai was driven by its characters – the world around them was a privileged la-la land. But the characters in Kai Po Che live in a world that imposes its will on them, when all they want to do is (in the micro sense) open a sports store-cum-training establishment and (in the macro sense) be a part of the New India, the shining India whose air-conditioned malls can accommodate this dream.
You don’t have to have read Bhagat’s novel (or even have an opinion on it) to connect to the happenings on screen, for the template is right out of Greek tragedy. The story is that of a tragic hero, Ishaan (Sushant Singh Rajput), whose flaw is his naïvete, his implicit (and innocent) belief that his actions can make order from chaos. And this attempt to reconcile the Apollonian and the Dionysian results in tragedy, a turn of events that’s telegraphed at the very beginning when a shamefaced Omi (Amit Sadh) is released from prison. He’s barely able to look up at Govind (Raj Kumar Yadav), who’s come to pick him up, and the film enters flashback mode, taking us back to Ahmedabad in the early 2000s, about the time everything in our nation had begun to revolve around religion. It’s no different with these three young men, who are deeply religious – it’s just that their religion is cricket.
To a large extent, it’s the game that drives the film. It’s all-pervasive. When Govind picks Omi up from jail and they stop for coffee, we’re shown scenes from a match on television. And in the past, we see Ishaan lounging about his house in T-shirts bearing his name and number – he seems to want little more than to relive his glory days as a cricketer in school, much to the frustration of his father. His weapon of choice when, in rage, he breaks the headlights of a car? A cricket bat, of course. Subsequently, their careers are linked to cricket. These three friends set about opening an establishment named Sabarmati Sports (the ‘M’ is shaped like stumps and bails). And their fates, too, are shaped by cricket. The need to keep pursuing this dream takes them closer to Bittu Mama (Manav Kaul), a fundamentalist party worker with deep pockets. He finances one religion; he fans the flames of another.
In the world of this film, the religion of cricket trumps the other religions. It unites Hindu and Muslim. Ishaan, during one of his coaching sessions, notices a prodigy named Ali (Digvijay Deshmukh), who can apparently summon up sixes at will. Where other kids mock Ali as a lehenga-chaap and refuse to look beyond his community, Ishaan sees only his talent. That’s the only thing that matters, a religion practiced only by the truest of believers, those with the deepest faith and ability – the envisioner of this utopia, naturally, cannot be allowed to live. His life must be sacrificed for the greater good, and towards the end, when Ali calls Ishaan “bhaiyya” – for the first time – we are reminded of the countless moments in Hindi cinema of a certain era (and indeed, an India of a certain era) where “Hindu-Muslim bhai-bhai” was a given and didn’t have to be arrived at through a series of calamities.
The other religion, in the context of the lives of these friends, is merely hinted at, at first. We see it in the sacred thread around the torso of Omi, in the Ganesha statuette on the dashboard of Govind’s car, and in the “Om’ that Govind inscribes on a blackboard in their newly opened sports school. Ishaan, on the other hand cannot be bothered, with symbols of this religion. On that very blackboard, he draws a smiley-face. And then the world changes. Unlike movies like Rang De Basanti where society is changed through the active actions of protagonists, the change in Kai Po Che happens almost passively – for none among these friends is looking beyond their own lives. They don’t make things happen; things happen to them. The earthquake happens. The train-burning happens. Ayodhya happens. And for a while, this trio is trapped in the real world where, unfortunately, the religion of cricket is trumped by the other religions, something that Ishaan is woken up to rather rudely when he escorts Ali and some other Muslims to a refugee camp, only to be turned away. (To Ishaan, Ali is a cricketer. To the others, Ali is a Muslim.)
Even in their personal (non-political) lives, these characters aren’t so much the actors as the acted-upon. Witness how Vidya (Amrita Puri) has to initiate the romance with Govind, how Bittu Mama has to brainwash Omi against his friends, how the headmistress of a local school has to instill in Govind the idea that they can take their venture to schools. The trigger is always from someone else. Only Ishaan, the truest disciple of the religion of cricket (and hence the dreamer-visionary), begins to take matters into his own hands, as when he leads Ali to that refugee camp, or when, towards the end, he seeks to ensure Ali’s well-being (again, for the cause of cricket). The fact that Ishaan (sometimes) leads, while the others merely follow is beautifully illustrated in a sequence in a bus. The three friends are seated at first, but then Ishaan climbs out a window and goes to the top. Omi follows Ishaan (just as he will later follow Bittu Mama; it’s these blind followers who are the most dangerous). And Govind is last. The least adventurous of the trio, and the most cautious, he crawls along the top of the bus and when he finally reaches his friends, near the front of the bus, he keeps holding on to Ishaan.
The story may be simplistic, naïve even – and one could make a case that it is intentionally so, mirroring the naïvete of its protagonist – but Kapoor fleshes out his characters so richly that we are pulled uncomplainingly into their world. Like old-time Bollywood filmmakers, Kapoor values emotional logic over political or social “truth,” and like those older filmmakers he knows how to fuse music into moments and attain the purest realm of feeling. When, after India trounces Australia in a test match, Omi races out to embrace Ishaan, temporarily forgetting the other religion he’s switched to and awash in the euphoria brought on by the religion of cricket, Kapoor unleashes – for the second time – Amit Trivedi’s superb number, Maanjha. I had tears in my eyes. It’s a reminder that the melodramatic language of our mainstream cinema is still potent in the right hands, and that it’s not just the masala potboilers that hark back to an older cinematic era.
There’s humour too. The Pari hoon main sequence is gold. These Gujaratis are never reduced to caricatures. Govind may be the “vegetarian” of the group, averting his eyes when Ishaan and Omi thrust a girlie mag in front of his face, but it’s Govind who ends up having sex first. I’d have thought Ishaan would end up with this dubious honour, but thinking back, his “purity” makes sense. He has eyes only for cricket. When Ali’s father is reluctant to let his son play (he calls the game “ameeron ka shauq”), Ishaan sets about changing his mind. This religion is for everyone, rich or poor. Ishaan is too good for this world. He gives away their savings to needy Muslims, without thinking, whereas when Govind “gifts” a ball to a student, it’s a bit of a promotional strategy, keeping in mind long-term gains. And Omi’s status as a follower is reinforced when Govind and Ishaan are shown as teachers, the former of mathematics, the latter of cricket. Omi is such a sheep that he doesn’t do anything even when a sword is thrust in his hands. His passivity, his need to be led, is more terrifying than the most blood-soaked act of carnage.
Kapoor builds his film beautifully (and the performances are excellent), intercutting the general with the specific, and sometimes the political with the personal. The drama surrounding a local cricket match is intercut with the drama around electioneering, where a “red” party is up against a “green” party. (Where these religions wage war against one another through slogans and shouts, the cricket field recognises only talent, with “Ali the Saviour” placards.) Then, the drama surrounding an India-Australia test match (Day 1, Day2, Day 3…) is intercut with the drama around a brother-sister fight, their subsequent making up, and the estrangement and reunion of friends. Finally, Kapoor intercuts the drama of rioting with that of a pregnancy scare. This cross-hatched texture ensures that we’re always inside the movie, despite its somewhat sketchy depiction of one of the nation’s major upheavals. (People who have problems with Mani Ratnam’s use of political events as wallpaper for his humanistic dramas will probably level the same charges against Kapoor).
But despite what it’s about, Kai Po Che has little patience with overt message-mongering. There’s a bit of light-hearted lecturing about sports being as valuable to individual development as studies, and there’s certainly a “message” at the end – but when we respond so emotionally to something, the message doesn’t rankle. In another instance of the acted and the acted-upon, the Hindus here are the instigators, the perpetrators, the Muslims merely the ones meted out injustice. (We see Hindu carnage; we’re merely told about what happened in that train.) At first, this appears yet another steaming pile of liberal guilt, but see this through Ishaan’s eyes (his naïve, even childlike, eyes) and we’re left with the notion that it’s the duty of the majority to safeguard the minority, recognising that the actions of a few aren’t enough to discredit an entire community. It’s no surprise that the last shot (figuratively, and literally) comes from Ali, the cricketer, who, as a Muslim, was saved by Ishaan. There are no tears, no dedication of his success to his bhaiyya. He just walks out and does his duty – for his team, for his country. It may be a utopian daydream, but heck, who wants to wake up?
Copyright ©2013 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.