In a global moment, you’d think the world’s largest movie industry could get some global respect. Increasingly Bollywood (which sells more tickets and makes more movies than Hollywood but produces much smaller revenues) is actually shopping for Western attention with cross-over films designed to entertain audiences not fully steeped in the Indian conventions of overproduced, melodramatic musical romance.
And so a new director such as Abhishek Kapoor produces the cricket movie Kai Po Che!, a film that might be the next Bend It Like Beckham – if it did not have the sensibilities of the next Dr. Zhivago. It is a film that skips the huge dance numbers but not the dewy closeups; a film that can countenance premarital sex and doesn’t end in a wedding, but dissolves into melodrama nonetheless.
Set in the state of Gujarat in northwestern India, the Hindi-language film is adapted by Kapoor from a novel by Chetan Baghat called The 3 Mistakes of My Life, and tells the story of three bosom buddies who attempt to establish a sports shop and cricket academy that will groom the next Indian champions. Ishaan (Sushant Singh Rajput) is the impetuous, cricket-mad egomaniac who used to be a local star but never made it to the big leagues and is now dangerously short of a good career plan. Omi (Amit Sadh) is his sidekick, the kind of guy who will always take the fall for the gang. Govind (Raj Kumar Yadav) is the businessman of the trio, a shy and gentle math whiz.
Discovering Ali, a 12-year-old batsman more interested in his marbles than his miraculous ability to hit every ball into the stands, Ishaan finally faces a challenge to which he can rise. But to get the money to set up the shop and academy, Omi has to promise his services to his nefarious uncle, a local political operator who drums up Hindu-Muslim tensions to advance his campaigns – and Ali is Muslim. Meanwhile, Ishaan’s brash young sister Vidya (Amrita Puri) is making a play for Govind.
While Govind is busy running the business and falling in love, tensions explode between Ishaan and Omi. There is, whether intentionally or not, a strong homoerotic current in this relationship, in the midst of a very male film set in a very male society. In one of several lengthy dialogue-free montages set to a sweeping soundtrack, the shirtless friends horse around on a weekend road trip, dancing a bit of traditional Indian choreography and flinging themselves off ramparts into the sea.
Both these feel-good sequences and the initial charm of the little-guys-conquer-long-odds story are a bit hard to buy, however, since the movie is told in flashback from an initial scene that shows Omi getting out of jail a decade later. Clearly something is going to go badly.
His trajectory is by far the most interesting of the three. As Ishaan, Rajput is mainly there to look handsome; as Govind, Yadav is mainly there to look sweet. It is Sadh as Omi who does the really interesting work with his intriguing portrait of the easy mark turned into a political drone. It is only in his final incarnation, as a fiery-eyed anti-Muslim zealot, that the melodramatic conventions of the form defeat him.
By this point Manav Kaul’s mustache-twirling version of the villainous uncle is hogging the spotlight anyway and this rather long movie, which also boasts an earthquake, a fatal fire and a victorious test match, has fallen victim to the very conventions it sought to rise above. Respect will have to wait.