Saturday, June 20, 2009

Chak De India and its feminist glitches.

Contains some spoilers for the movie. Watch it before reading! (I doubt you'll regret it.)

I said I'd blog about feminist perspectives when I have something to say, and after rewatching Chak De India last night with one of my NIF (Non-Indian Film watcher) friends, I find I have things to say. (I feel the need to point out that this NIF friend, while still not being fanatic about Indian films, has done something revolutionary; she bought Rang De Basanti on DVD because she enjoyed it so much! Hurray!)

The thing is, I adore this film to bits. It's refreshing, it's gripping, it's got a cast of absolutely terrific characters and some rare, fascinating female-female dynamics that are usually reserved for relations between the sexes or just between men in Indian cinema. And yes, it is awesomely feminist -- boldly, explicitly saying, girls should be able to go out and do stuff, and they can do all stuff as well as men. So what I'm about to say is not to undermine the film's obvious achievements, it's more to examine it more closely.

But - ah, there's always a but, isn't there? - as the movie was winding down, and we see the last of Shahrukh Khan's character Kabir's journey, my friend commented, "But the girls couldn't have done it without a man, huh?".

Glitch number one, ladies and gentlemen (and I sincerely hope people of both genders are still reading!).

The film both triumphs and suffers from the character of Kabir. Triumphs because it surely helped the film's commercial appeal to have the biggest actor in Bollywood starring, and of course, who's to deny Shahrukh turned in a fine performance as the girls' coach. Suffers because it is clear that while these girls were all talented in their own right, they needed Kabir to pull them together as a team, lead them to victory. Even the very final save by the team captain Vidya was successfully pulled off thanks to the signal of Kabir.

You could see the film makers were sort of struggling to maintain a balance between the film's story being the girls' and one of Kabir. It's a tough balance to achieve, no doubt, and I think thanks to Shahrukh's presence, the scale ended up being tipped slightly towards the latter. On the other hand, this is what the audience, I think, expected and probably what I expected, going in. When it turns out the girls have character arcs, personalities and interesting, changing dynamics in a film that is pretty tight in terms of pace and script, I was blown away. The second time, I could take a step back and realize that at the end, Kabir's importance is highlighted as well. But is it at the expense of the girls?

That's really the big question. It can be problematic but it doesn't have to be. Of course, realistically speaking, the character of Kabir couldn't be female - a perceived betrayal of the women's team captain wouldn't be such a big media fuss as that of the men's team captain. But aside from that, it's a typical sports movie and it has its typical sports movie characters and plot structure. Kabir comes in with radical ideas, the girls rebel, but most eventually bend to his will, seeing its results. He is the archetype of the inspirational coach (or teacher) and such a role could be played by a man or a woman. The fact that the character is male carries some implications, but they don't need to be considered as overshadowing the girls' active roles on the field. At the end of the day, whatever training and tactics seminars the coach does, the players get the job done.

Then the other glitch, which my friend also pointed out during our viewing, and which Beth has blogged about (though I hadn't seen the movie at that point and couldn't join in on the discussions). It is the McDonald's fight scene, the bit where some guys and then some more guys get trashed by the girls for making lewd comments at the border state representatives, Mary and Molly.

My friend commented something along the lines of, "Well, that's not too fair." and Beth in her post seconds the notion of vigilante violence not perhaps being the way to deal with gross suggestive comments. Standing up vocally, yes. With fists and sticks? Maybe not.

But as my friend said that, I realized another thing. In the context of the film, my friend and Beth have a definite point - it is an exaggerated response to a situation, and to see Kabir just munching on his burger, not trying to stop the girls' "show of team spirit", is comical and weird at the same time. But the scene makes sense, through a different prism, and one that I'm sure certain female viewers, perhaps even all female viewers, can select to view.

It's this unfortunate worldwide fact that almost all - if not indeed all - women have faced sexual harrassment or even abuse at some point during their lives. Even if it has been of the milder variety, even if it hasn't left considerable trauma, even if it is not something they face every day, it simply is fact. (And now this isn't some call for all the women who don't feel they've ever been sexually harrassed to call me out for generalizing - if you're one such female, you can consider yourself lucky and recognize that some have not been so lucky. I personally prefer not to discuss my experiences with such matters, so I'll simply say I'm not a stranger to it, but also consider myself lucky.)

So the girls in Chak De are not just paying back for a couple of comments. They're paying back for all the comments, all the unwelcome touches they've suffered throughout their lives, and all the stuff they know their fellow females have suffered as well. For the female viewer, who probably has experienced such harrassment and discrimination based on their gender at some point, it can be an empowering, cleansing experience. Is it fair to take it out on a portion of the idiots who do such things? Not really. But it makes sense none the less.

(I should add I'm not some revolutionary thinker on this point -- many people who commented on Beth's post had similar ideas.)

Do these two glitches (and any I possibly didn't pick up on) kill the movie? Not in the least. But it's worth noticing they exist, so as to stay critical of what even the most progressive movies say about gender. So that not only will we get movies as good as CDI in the future, but movies that are, god willing, even better.

Another talky, non-picture-filled post from me. Next time I'll try to bring you more screencap gloriousness. (Summer job is keeping me pretty busy, apologies for not being up on all my blog following business.)


Bollywood said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
veracious said...

I never said men don't suffer from it, and never meant to imply that. It's simply that the inverse isn't too relevant in the situation. (And of course, it's less common for men to get sexually harrassed. Which is not to undermine the issue but simply to say women experiencing it is far, far more common.)

bollywooddeewana said...

I watched this and all i could just think of afterwards was way too 'predictable'i knew they were going to win that match, i would have liked a different ending

anitarama said...

The thing is that I never saw this movie as a story about WOMEN and how they fought against a society that didn't believe in them, but about a group of OUTCASTS who did the same. I didn't see it in terms of gender, and I rarely do see things in terms of gender, which may be why I don't consider myself much of a feminist. But, yes, Kabir Khan was as much of a misfit as the rest of them and it was as much his battle to win as the girls.

And really, I just thought the Mcdonalds fight scene was mainly for the lulz. ;)

veracious said...

bollywooddeewana - I don't mind sports movies having predictable endings. For me it's more about the ride than anything...

Anita - I think before anything, even the most hardcore feminist sees characters as characters. But viewing gender can be a really interesting experience, especially for a film that invites it. Your viewpoint makes a lot of sense to me, too, though.

Bollywood said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
yves said...

Hi Sanni,
Do you have a list of the films you've reviewed? Sometimes I'm looking for certain movies in the various blogs I visit, and I've made a list of the review pages found here and there: it would be great if you had one!

Anonymous said...

I don't think that scene at Mc Donald's was an overreaction. Such things happen in India. Not only a group of girls like this but ones brothers or other male members of your family can easily react which may lead to bigger things.

I speak from experience not just mine but some friends' too. ;-)

Anonymous said...

PS:*hit submit prematurely.*

I agree with Anita that the girls and the coach both needed each other, to prove something, and I appreciate this angle much more than I would have if it had been an all female thing with not needing a man or vice versa.

author_number_2 said...

Interesting to read your reservations about the movie. but i don't agree with it. kabir khan provides the necessary details for the team to prosper because he knows he's faltered at some point in his life (we shouldn't forget that this is a real-life incident).

secondly, it is not uncommon of such kind of reaction such as the one in McD. we often get irritated at the remarks and would lose no time to raise our hand on the perpetrators.

veracious said...

BollywoodFan - That's a fair point, about the Bindia propositioning Kabir in that one scene. That's the kind of sexual harassment that happens in offices, I suppose to both sexes, but not on public transportation or the street.

Yves - Good call, when I have some days off I'll try to work on one. :)

Anon - Wow! Thanks for the info.

Dolphin - They're not so much reservations as they are interpretations, things I picked up on. I still fiercely love the movie.

author_number_2 said...


i'm not criticizing you for interpreting the way you did... you're a keen observer.


Dr. Ally Critter said...

What I liked about the film was how an oppressed being SRK as the disgraced coach, got together with other outcasts- the girls whom no one cared for- you know in spirit and together they made it big team work. I saw it as being very empowering, overt regional caricatures notwithstanding. And the thrashing scene was one of my favorite ones. I preferred SRK not jumping and "rescuing" the women.

Pessimisissimo said...

I'd like to second @lankr1ta's comment. The point of the McDonald's scene is precisely that Kabir Khan doesn't jump in (at least initially). Whether you feel the women's reaction is justified or not (and I'm firmly in the former category) it was about the women finding solidarity with one another. If that takes a few loudmouth jerks getting unmercifully thrashed and a corporate chain restaurant getting thoroughly trashed, then so be it.

veracious said...

dolphin - No prob. Respectful disagreement is okay, but good to know you appreciate my viewpoint as well.

@lankr1ta - Very good point. I think the fact both parties are outsiders and underdogs is an important theme in the movie, not to mention common in sports movies in general.

Pessimissimo - It's funny, before @lankr1ta pointed it out, I hadn't even considered that the typical reaction would be to have the male character "rescue" the girls. Interesting indeed..

Unknown said...

I do not consider the involvement of Kabir Khan's marvellous talent stand in between the movie being called a completely feminist one. The reason I say so is that feminism never ever in its entire time of being on this beautiful planet called Earth claimed that it means singular power of women. It has always aimed at bringing man and woman working as colleagues (which we see in the movie very clearly). Yes, it is true that the victory of the girls' team could not have been brought out without the intervention of the coach Kabir Khan but, of course, we always need a coach if we have a sports team. And Kabir, in that sense, is not an unnecessary excess in the movie. And most importantly, we must not forget that even the girls play excellent hockey and help Kabir Khan wipe out the mark of being a national traitor. Surely, Kabir could not have done that without the help of the girls. So, the movie is indeed a feminist one. So, who's disagreeing?