Friday 17 August 2018

"Gold" (Guardian 17/08/18)

Gold ****
Dir: Reema Kagti. With: Akshay Kumar, Sunny Kaushal, Mouni Roy, Vineet Kumar Singh. 151 mins. Cert: 12A

Unlike its more visible winter sport equivalent, field hockey has been the basis of an infinitesimally small number of features. Most of these – like 2007’s fondly remembered Chak De! India, which saw Shah Rukh Khan coaching an all-girl team – have hailed from the Indian commercial cinema, a telltale sign of the game’s elevated status out East. Nimble stickwork and old-school rollout penalty corners now serve as the basis of Reema Kagti’s Gold, a burnished, sweeping yet astutely framed period drama replaying a formative moment in Indian identity, its Dunkirk on grass: the assembly of the squad that would survive Partition to win the newly independent nation’s first Olympic medal in the colonialists’ backyard of Wembley in 1948.

Some standard sports-movie simplification is present. A nation’s emergence is here aligned with the re-emergence of one man, the shrewd Bengali tactician Tapan Das (Akshay Kumar, lending late-blooming gravitas to a composite character). First seen cutting a dashing, Southgate-ish figure overseeing British India’s team for the Berlin Games, his recovery from booze-induced wartime blackouts entails the quasi-militaristic business of recruitment – Kagti scouting far and wide for nicely etched character studies – then training and eventually battle on overseas soil. Certain elements can’t fail to stoke PM Modi’s flagwaving base, but Das’s is defined as a mission that unified castes and factions amid considerable turmoil; the message isn’t India First, but that nations play best when individuals become a team.

Handing potentially predictable playbook material to a female director generates benefits besides. Kagti seems uninterested in breaking this story down into muscle-flexing drill sessions, instead questioning what truly merits celebrating in the squad’s progress. Her script pays generally credible lip service to political debates, but she also has immense fun with those scenes bringing disparate folk together on pitches or in nightclubs, and sneaks in sly glimpses of Das’s relationship with a wife (Mouni Roy, blessed with the style and much-missed sass of Forties screen heroines) who coaches him on how to be a better man. It’s spry, stirring entertainment foremost – arguably indulging its star with one drunk number too many – but also evidence of a country beginning to tell its own stories with confidence and justifiable pride. 

Gold is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

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