Welcome to the first installment of the new series, Bollywood Cliffs Notes: all you ever wanted to know about Bollywood (and then some). Each week, I’ll feature a different Indian film. I’m going to focus mostly on Bollywood, but will also incorporate Indian art house into the discussion. By including some background and history, I hope to provide a greater context through which to understand Indian national identity. My goal is to provide you with a handful of significant films through which to begin your exploration of this expansive canon of work.
Chak De! India
Ten years after Indian Independence, Mehboob Khan’s film, Mother India portrays the struggle of a strong Indian woman—a mother and wife who toils away at the earth so as to provide for her family. The opening scene shows our main character in the present, Radha, played by Nargis, as an old woman, clutching and blessing the earth. Behind her signs of modernity roll past—tractors plowing the fields once worked by hand. Radha flashes back to her wedding and, in turn, Khan invites us into the story of her tumultuous life as wife and mother. We follow her struggle and strife as a self-sacrificing, determined, independent single mother who has suffered great loss at the hands of an evil moneylender. Radha, Mother India, emulates the struggle for Indian independence. Moreover, it was the first Bollywood production to win international recognition, with a nomination for best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards in 1957. The film projected a particular imagining of India to the rest of the world—India as harboring a tragic past, whose obstacles she can overcome through hard work, determination, and might. While the film Mother India is significant in the imagining of Indian identity, the film itself is long and tragic—in essence, a glorified soap opera. How has this image since changed within the last fifty years?
I saw the film Chak De! India in a Bombay theatre during the summer of 2007. I first saw it in Hindi without English subtitles. With a limited command of the language, I only had a contextual understanding of the action. Nonetheless, I knew I loved it. Unlike most Bollywood productions, it does not rely on choreographed song and dance to propel the plot line. Directed by Shimit Amin, it is a Yash Chopra production. Don’t worry, there is still a catchy soundtrack and a large dose of drama—not quite the glorified soap opera variety but Drama, nonetheless. As always, the feel good message is delivered by heavy Bollywood star power—this time, the infamous Shahrukh Khan himself. When I returned home from India, I was pleasantly surprised to find the film playing in the theatre down the street. This time, the presence of English subtitles helped me to fill-in a few gaps in the storyline.
As an American, it’s hard to imagine women having to work hard to prove themselves as competent, capable field hockey players. In India, it is a sport dominated by men. In the United States, women predominate. Nevertheless, Chak De! India is a wonderful film that uses the national Indian women’s hockey team as a metaphor for nation building. The film invites us to witness the struggle of imagining only one Indian identity. The young women come from all over India, boasting a myriad of ethnicities, languages, and cultural mores. Their differences create a great chasm, and just as you think they’re not going to make it as a team, you’re dropped into an implausible scene that takes place in a McDonalds. Only in Bollywood.
Unlike Mother India, that spouts individualism and personal triumph against an obdurate, evil master, Chak De! India troubles the notion of a single Indian identity, revealing a process that is most often assumed as authentic or natural.
Chak De! India represents a return to portraying Indian values within Indian borders, after a shift in the nineties toward a common Bollywood theme of Diaspora. Nevertheless, if you're interested in dabbling in Bollywood, Chak De! India is a feel-good blockbuster that is much more than your basic sports drama. It explores the articulation of Indian identity on Indian soil—a refreshing twist after too many Bollywood films with Western back-up dancers.