In hindsight, after watching -- and being swept away by -- the amazingly simple, yet amazingly inspirational film, I cannot stop raving about it. I thought Swades would be SRK's finest effort ever; but Chak De shows that the actor in him -- when not subsumed by his superstar status -- has a vast reservoir of emoting left to satisfy fans and critics alike for many more years.
Chak De's appeal among the audiences shows that even sans commercial considerations like song and dance, the mandatory fights, there is a vast market for a straight-forward, well-narrated tale. We have always known it from the multiplex hits like Bheja Fry etc; now we know such a market exists for stars and superstars as well. No one need remains a prisoner of their image.
Chak De is the tale of a disgraced hockey captain, Kabir Khan, and his attempt at redemption, reclaiming his honour by leading the unsung women's hockey team to world cup triumph. Yes, it is thus a story about gender equality -- a point that gets hammered many times through the narrative with dialogues like 'Tumlog belan chalanewali kidhar skirt pahinkar hockey stick leti ho?'
But to me, the film came across, and appealed, not for the blow it strikes for the country's most neglected sport nor for the fact that it shows that women are no less than men in any sphere they choose.
The film warmed to me because this was the first time the M-word has come to be at the centre of the superstar's oeuvre.
For throughout his illustrious career spanning two decades, Shah Rukh Khan has never played a Muslim character -- if you ignore that cameo in Kamal Haasan's Hey! Ram. Even in Chak De, there is NO allowance to the character's faith barring the name, Kabir Khan, the scraggly beard he sports, and the aadab with which he greets others. Not once is Kabir Khan shown doing the namaaz, not once is he shown clad in anything but 'Western attire', not once does he ever say he is a Muslim.
But, much as the script overtly downplays any mention of Kabir Khan's faith, it is Khan's dilemma as a Muslim in today's India that courses through the narrative.
And that's the way Shah Rukh would have wanted it, I am sure. Unlike the other two Khans who share the mantle with him.
I have no idea if Salman Khan has played a Muslim in his films, and if he has, what kind of Muslim the character was. Aamir Khan, given his nod towards realism, portrayed one that remains etched in my mind, Rehaan of Fanaa. Rehaan was a Kashmiri terrorist, clearly showing that Aamir will not duck any uncomfortable issue when it comes to his cinema. Rehaan fascinates me no end, since it was played by the same actor who also played ACP Rathore in the memorable Sarfarosh, the film that head-on tackled Pakistani terrorism in India.
Since then, I have been puzzling over the kind of Muslim Shah Rukh Khan will ever play, and the kind of film it will be. I got my answer with Chak De.
Shah Rukh has, in the past, spoken about his views on Islam, including to us, and they are reflective of the kind of person he is: Easy-going, and married to a Hindu. He is also extremely careful of the kind of roles he plays, and this extreme discretion is the reason -- I think -- that it has taken him this long to play a Muslim.
It cannot be easy to be a Muslim, in India and especially in these times. The moderate Muslim, who is in an overwhelming majority I am certain, has to constantly fight two demons: One from the past, of Partition and his/her perspective on Pakistan, a Muslim-majority nation inimical to India; and another ghost from the present, when Muslims are usually accused of engineering terrorist plots in India. Their silence often is reflective of the silence of the majority, of which we all are guilty of, but the silence of the Muslim is the one that is constantly highlighted.
I am sure SRK himself has had to face this dilemma, this doubt over his commitment to India. And it comes out in a searing line in the movie: 'Aise log Partition ke time mein hi Pakistan jaana chahiye tha.' It is a line, a charge, that must trouble SRK no end, as it does no doubt to millions of other Indians, for it returns to haunt him during the movie.
In my mind, the central theme running through the movie was: Can a Muslim be a Muslim and be loyal to India? Or to modify that, What must a Muslim do in the face of doubts over his loyalty to India?
It's a pressing question, for as SRK stops short of saying in another place, there is no second chance given to Muslims. When his friend, after pitching for SRK as the coach of the national women's team, consoles SRK's past failure by saying everyone is allowed one mistake, Humsab ki ek ghalati maaf, Shah Rukh Khan disagrees wryly: Sabki nahi, sabki nahi.
He doesn't use the M word here, or in any other place, but the message is very clear. There is no second chance to the Indian Muslim if he fumbles. As he repeats it towards the end, the burden of failure is too much to carry, most don't have it in them to survive.
But Kabir Khan has it in him. Falling off the radar for seven years, he resurfaces to reclaim his honour, restoring the public's faith in his nationalism. All the while training the young girls he only harps on one theme: India, nation, the tricolour. Submerge your regional identities, he exhorts them, play as Indians, be Indian, you are not from Tamil Nadu, Andhra, Manipur, Jharkhand... And, though he doesn't say it, Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Parsi, Sikh. And when you play as an Indian, not only is the acclamation sure to follow, but it also wipes out any lingering doubts over your love for your country.
In the public domain, Kabir Khan worships the tricolour, breathes for India. We don't know what he does behind the doors of his home, which he so eloquently shuts on us in the last scene. The message is clear: Whatever I am in my home, when I step out, I do so as a proud Indian.
For someone like me searching for the kind of Muslim SRK will play, and I daresay the kind of Muslim SRK is, Kabir Khan is the answer. For Muslims caught in the pincer between extremism and majority scepticism, Kabir Khan provides the answer. For the others, Chak De provides some great moments.