Readers Write In #156: Character establishment in Chak De! India

Posted on April 18, 2020

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(by Hariharasudhen Nagarajan)

In ‘Chak De! India’, director Shimit Amin convincingly narrates the triumph of the Indian Women’s Hockey team that begins the film as underdogs. Even today, people talk about the performance of Shah Rukh Khan, who gave us goosebumps by bringing alive on screen some killer lines from the script. People may also not fail to remember the various characters that formed a part of the hockey team, such as Balbir Kaur, Komal Chautala, and Bindya Naik.

Why are these women characters remembered even today? The writer, Jaideep Sahni, consistently shows these characters with their unique traits throughout the film. These characters also undergo an internal journey, similar to the external journey of their team.

I wanted to talk about the character establishment of the women athletes in the scene where the players register for the national team. The writer-director duo takes six minutes of screentime to show us their unique personalities and traits. Their uniqueness gets repeated in the film to maintain consistency. The viewer, having already figured them out in the character establishment scene, gets a head start on these characters' psyche, instead of asking the question that plagues a lot of films: 'But why is the person behaving this way?'.

Setting up characters goes a long way in investing in their journeys. For example, if I saw Balbir Kaur for the first time in the film getting angry at another player during the game, here are a couple of questions that I, as a viewer, may want to ask the writer: Why does this person behave the way that she does? Does this person behave the same off the field as well? Since this is a sports film, the same set of questions would apply to the rest of the players as well. And since there are eleven players involved in a game of Hockey, a viewer might fail to remember each one of these characters because of their individualities.

Jaideep Sahni answers the above questions in the character establishment scene, where he paints a perfect picture of the important characters and also gives us a glimpse of the bigger roles they will go on to play in the film.

We start with Maya Sharma, who gets down from her auto, pays the fare, and walks towards the registration counter in an unassuming way. The assistant coach Krishnaji and Sukhalal expose her bio to the viewer.

We see Balbir Kaur as someone with anger issues when she has an ugly argument with the auto driver regarding the fare. Kabir Khan teaches her to put her anger to good use after seeing her misdemeanors.

We see Komal Chautala as someone who has a winning mentality but is intent on proving a point to her opponents. She has a duel with her equally competitive and self-centered teammate, Preeti Sabarwal, through the rest of the film.

We see the difficulty faced by Soi Moi because she does not know Hindi. This gets repeated later on when Balbir Kaur gets into a fight with Soi Moiafter she fails to process Balbir Kaur‘s instructions in her mother tongue Punjabi, which allows the opponent team to score a goal.

When two men, thinking that Molly Zimik and Mary Raltedon’t know Hindi, pass a derogatory comment, one of them gets slapped by Molly Zimik. They confess to Sukhlal that they are seen as guests in their own country. A similar incident happens later in the restaurant scene when another creepy man passes a similar comment, which begins a fight and ends up uniting the team.

We see the senior most member Bindya Naik refusing to obey orders from Krishnaji when the latter asks her to be respectful towardsKabir Khan. She also mocks Sukhlal. Bindya tries to ouster Kabir Khan from the team because she became powerless once he took over as the head coach.

We see Preeti Sabarwal attending the orientation session late because she takes the team, and the game, for granted. It could be because her fiancé, a star cricketer, takes her for granted and looks down on her profession.

Even Kabir Khan‘s displeasure at players associating themselves with their states is consistent. He expresses his disappointment about the same topic with his friend, Uttamaji, in the previous scene. When the players register their names to be eligible for selection, Nethra Reddy asks Sukhlal not to stereotype South Indians as Madrasis. We see Balbir Kaur wearing a Punjab jacket. Preeti Sabarwal tells Kabir Khan that she is Chandigarh Hockey Team’s captain. We also see Gul Iqbal‘s mom, who wants her daughter to maintain the family’s successful track record with the sport. These events foreshadow the subsequent segment in the same scene where Kabir Khan sidelines players who introduce themselves to him by stating the states they belong to instead of their country.

The scene begins with establishing their unique characters and ends with them unitedly tying their names with ‘India’ after Kabir Khan asks them to play for the country first, followed by their teammates and finally for themselves if they have energy remaining in them. The story told in this scene is essentially the story of the film.

The film was not only about Kabir Khan, but also several other women who fought with themselves, their teammates, their families, and the male chauvinistic society. There is a transformation to these characters and the people around them when the end credits start rolling. Writing is predominantly about characters changing through the course of the film. A lot of films focus only on the external journeys of their characters. Few films focus on the internal and external journeys of the main character that would ensure such films stand the test of time. Very few films like ‘Chak De! India’ take us on internal journeys and one common external goal of multiple characters in just 150 minutes, making this a truly great film!