Gold: So You Think You Can Make Sports Films, Bollywood?

Bollywood

Gold: So You Think You Can Make Sports Films, Bollywood?

Illustration: Ahmed Sikander

I

t is nearly impossible to dislike the premise that inspired Reema Kagti’s Gold: After winning gold medals for British India and being forced to proclaim their loyalty to a foreign anthem and flag, Independent India sent its first “Indian” field Hockey contingent to the 1948 London Olympics. The fact that India defeated Great Britain in the finals to clinch their first gold medal as an independent country made it even more poetic. It was a sporting final rich with the subtext of unity, division, pride, and patriotism – one of those real-life events that was just waiting to make its way to the big screen.

And yet, what a missed opportunity, despite a (mostly) stellar cast and fascinating source material.

To understand why Gold is a drab 153-minute-long affair, look no further than how lightly Kagti takes the sporting event and turns it into an Akshay Kumar vanity project. Kumar meanwhile, lives up to his reputation by flailing around like a drunk penguin through most of the film. Despite being based on real events that sound remarkable on their own, Kagti chooses to revel in redundancy by fictionalising more than half of Gold.

As a result, you’re left with a film where, on paper, Akshay Kumar reprises the role of a successful hockey captain Kishan Lal, who led a new Indian team comprising inexperienced players, to victory in the London Olympics. But on screen, he is Tapan Das, a foolhardy and comic manager of the 1948 hockey team, who is perennially drunk and murders the Bengali language with abandon. The fact that he plays a pivotal role in leading India to its first gold is merely incidental. Ironically, for a film about sport, this is also how Gold treats hockey – as a formality.

It’s easy to see through this conceit. Making Kumar, an alcoholic and naive manager who’s a victim of bad luck but also has immeasurable passion, gives Gold the room to tap into the star’s various strengths: An enthusiastic comic timing, a penchant for theatrics, evoking rousing sympathy and nationalistic pride despite all odds, and romancing a much younger actress.

Somehow, Gold also manages to fetishise Bengali: The usual suspects “Dugga Dugga!”, “Kemon acho?” and “Oodi baba!” pepper Tapan’s vocabulary.

It’s even more gruelling to sniff out any semblance of a film from under the mountain of cliches. The journey of a rich Nawab, Raghuvir Singh (Amit Sadh) and a poor Sardar, Harmeet Singh (Sunny Kaushal) are a laboured contrast to depict that despite their differences, they are both united in their love for the sport. A random newspaper just places itself on Tapan’s face as he lies drunk on the road with the headline he’s been looking for. The bratty Nawab’s benevolence is disseminated in the film’s most bizarre scene that involves him stopping his car in the middle of the road and stripping down to his boxers to “donate” his clothes to a beggar he spots – scenes from 1947, a charity story.

The India-Britain final has the latter leading by three goals by half-time even though back in 1948, India routed Great Britain 4-0. Most of the inspiring and infighting montages of the film are a direct copy from Chak De! India. Centre-forwards Raghuvir and Harmeet are obviously each other’s nemesis on the field, with Gold trying to channel a badly disguised Komal Chautala-Preeti Sabharwal rivalry between them. If in Chak De! India, Komal and Preeti’s hostility on the field was elevated by personal insecurities and compelling back stories, then in Gold, the only explanation given for almost any conflict or problem is the inscrutable male ego. In fact, calling the film “Ego” instead of Gold might have been more befitting.

Somehow, Gold also manages to fetishise Bengali: The usual suspects “Dugga Dugga!”, “Kemon acho?” and “Oodi baba!” pepper Tapan’s vocabulary. The film shortchanges Lal’s nickname, “Dada” and supplants it with a heart-attack-inducing “Ey Bangali” to sincerely highlight how little they really understand Bengalis.

But the film reserves its worst cliches for its “two” female protagonists: Das’s wife Monobina (Mouni Roy) is either tricked into cooking (It’s justified as taking revenge for 200 years of revenge, not just a domestic chore), lending her gold jewellery as per her husband’s demands or praying for his team’s win. On the other hand, Harmeet’s girlfriend (Nikita Dutta) exists in the film so that countless neighbours can embarrass her by asking her about his exclusion from the match and she can then sit near the phone waiting for his call. Lest you forget, the film is written and directed by a woman.

Ultimately Gold is a testament to how Bollywood views sport. Like a majority of filmmakers, Kagti too looks at achievement in sport as an excuse to spoon feed inspiration. As a result, even after two hours, Gold ensures that you go back home only with the memory of Akshay Kumar singing the national anthem, giving us permission to celebrate Independence Day.

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