Cast: Akshay Kumar, Kunal Kapoor, Mouni Roy, Amit Sadh, Vineet Kumar Singh, Sunny Kaushal, Nikita Dutta, Atul Kale
Director: Reema Kagti
Mostly, Bollywood doesn’t do sports movies well. Mary Kom, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, Azhar, M.S. Dhoni, Ali, Sultan, Soorma, Saala Khadoos… Stories sucked dry of all politics and crimps, to create dull eulogies about an individual’s pursuit of the impossible so that a star can be plonked inside them to pose about.
But, on the few occasions when Bollywood writes and directs sports movies — real or fictional — that are rooted in a strong political context, it does them memorably, movingly well. Lagaan, Chak De, Paan Singh Tomar, Dangal and now, Gold.
Written by Rajesh Devraj and Reema Kagti, the story of Gold is inspired by the real events of Indian hockey team’s dream run at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, and the 1948 games in London, Great Britain.
Joining and separating these stories is the story of India: A nation struggling to gain independence amidst the mayhem and tumult of World War II, and just as the euphoria around gaining independence is beginning to sink in, it is faced with the calamitous announcement and events of Partition that locked in its bloodbath the fate of two nations, two people.
It’s a brilliant slice of history. And in her telling, writer-director Kagti weaves in the story of people who played together to bag gold, fought together to be free, but were then surgically split, thrown asunder. The prejudice, hostility, biases deepened and, now they sit firing at each other from their side of the line that Radcliffe drew.
Gold uses two hockey matches — one before Independence, and one after — to show that it wasn’t always like that. And since the film stars Akshay Kumar, it insists that it needn’t be.
Bandh mutthi lakh ki, khuli toh pyaare… khakh ki.
Gold opens in Berlin, where Junior Manager Tapan Das (Akshay Kumar) is carting the hockey team to 1936 Olympics.
The “British India team”, with two Olympic golds, is the defending champion and a jolly a mix of Britishers and Indians of all hues. But the one on whom all hopes of gold are pinned is Samrat (Kunal Kapoor playing Dhyan Chand).
The final match is against Germany, and Fuehrer is in the stadium.
The movie adds some silly Indian protest against Hitler, of a biased referee and a small mutiny with the tiranga itching to happen to heighten our interest.
It didn’t need to. In Berlin, India scored a total of 38 goals, allowing the hosts just one goal in the final match where they beat Germany 8-1, forcing Hitler to storm out of the stadium.
But it reminds us that the flag which went up, and the anthem that played wasn’t Indian.
Because of World War II, two Olympic Games got cancelled, and in this long, fallow period players went their own way, grew old, and Tapan got wasted, quite literally, to the daily irritation of his wife, Monobina (Mouni Roy).
So when the announcement of India’s Independence is made and it seems that Olympics will be held in 1948, Tapan picks himself up, dusts off his coat and dhoti and trudges to Mr Wadia (Naval Tata in real life), head of the hockey federation, to ask for permission and funds to put together a team.
As he goes around scouting for players and a captain, the movie focuses on Himmat (Sunny Kaushal) and Kunwar Raghubir Pratap Singh (Amit Sadh).
Himmat, a Sikh from Punjab, is nicely fuelled by inqilabi fervour and there are some very adorable, funny scenes of him exerting his patriotism in ways that make you want to blow a flying kiss to him.
Kunwar sahib, on the other hand, arrives for practice as if he’s a VIP at a gathering, his kit being carried by his personal staff.
Both Himmat and Raghubir are proud, fiercely good, and both want to play centre-forward. But one plays for personal glory, while the other plays for the team.
Himmat’s anger and Raghubir’s nawabi style are grist for the plot that’ll come in handy later.
Partition splits the team, India loses its captain and Tapan has to set out again to find players, a captain.
Some time is wasted in some needless scenes involving Tapan with his wife and senior manager Mehta (Atul Kale) till we get to the climax which is a bit silly, but also heart warming and very desi.
Though Gold shows Britain putting up a fight, Independent India’s first Olympic gold against their colonisers in London was satisfyingly decisive. 4-0.
Gold scores on many points. Though its plot is at times propelled by some silly scenes, needless drama and dull asides, it is written intelligently to create a politically charged, emotional setting in which nicely etched out characters get to be and breathe. The film’s look — art direction, costumes, cinematography — has been put together beautifully.
Gold’s sepia look, which can be dull and monotonous, acquires colour and life here.
Men wear sharp suits, have obsessively clipped moustaches, and their hair is neatly parted to settle mostly on one side with a dissenting, romantic wave.
In the selection of cars, buildings, cigarette packets, starched pagris, there is attention to charming detail, to give the film a hint of nostalgic glamour.
Even the extras, the minor characters are cast well. Most have decent lines and are good actors, including the white folk. Which is surprising because mostly gora roles are assigned to listless or enthu cutlet backpackers, as if Bollywood remains determined to insult the Empire whenever it can.
But Gold’s brilliance and its heart lies in the hockey matches which are directed and edited beautifully. With her sharp, quick cuts, and a fabulous score, editor Anand Subaya has made these scenes pulse with tense excitement and end on in teary jubilation.
The India versus Netherlands match (which didn’t happen in real) is so engaging that in the final few seconds I forgot to breathe.
It is to Kagti’s credit that she manages to keep the star in check, mostly. Akshay Kumar is not in every frame, and in the ones he is in, he doesn’t always get to be the hero.
Akshay plays Tapan Das, the team’s creator, mentor, manager, protector, financier, like all good, proper Punjabis imitate Bengalis — with an invisible Rosogolla in the mouth.
It’s a caricature, yes, but Akshay’s earnestness embrace of Tapan Das’ character is without hesitation. He never loosens his grip on the man’s humanity, invests him with decency, and adds a starry sparkle to him. At the end, the silly Bengali pronunciation fades away, leaving us with a man whose warmth is irresistible.
The only other actor in Gold who holds the screen on his own is Sunny Kaushal, brother of Vicky Kaushal.
It’s almost as if he is not playing, but is Himmat, a character fashioned after Balbir Singh Dosanjh, often called the modern-day Dhyan Chand.
Sunny Kaushal is simply stunning. He will go places. Soon.
Amit Sadh is very good too, especially when his chest is puffed up with nawabi shaan and style.
As is Mouni Roy. Her Monobina is created out of Punjabi men and women’s fetishised fantasy of married Bengali women — snappy and scolding, but also sexy and sultry.
As an irritable homemaker in charge who is always exuding sensuousness, Mouni Roy nails this piece of domestic porn.
At least on face value, mining history for past glories seems to be a pathetic exercise in assuaging low-self esteem. But the manthan, churning that India is currently in the throes of is beginning to yield some very interesting, very political stories.
That two of these, in 2018 alone, have been helmed so well by women — Raazi by Meghna Gulzar and Kagti’s Gold — gives me hope.