There is something to be said about motivational sports films. They make you stand and cheer even when you know the predictable path invariably taken by the genre.
Gold starts off rather roughly, unsure of who the hero of this game-plan is. It is certainly not the boozing Bengali Tapan Das, played in broad strokes bordering on Bong caricature, by Akshay Kumar. So is it Imitiaz Shah, chosen as the first captain of the Indian cricket team? Imtiaz, played with a very peculiar accent by Vineet Kumar Singh, soon crosses the border to Pakistan but is there to cheer for the Indian hockey team in the grand finale in England.
No. Imtiaz isn’t the hero. So it is the royal arrogant hockey champ Raghubir Pratap Singh, a man of stange aristocratic contradictions who donates all his clothes to a streetside pauper but is excruciatingly self-absorbed on the hockey field. Then there is the hotheaded Punjabi player Himmat Singh, played with choleric credibility by Sunny Kaushal. Himmat’s temper issue keeps him off the game until the climax when he bursts on the field like a smothered meteor taking India to its predictable yet exhilarating victory.
Is Himmat the hero, then? As I searched for a formal hero to this sprawling uneven yet fascinating and eventually gripping saga of India’s first gold medal at the Olympics after independence, I realized that the beauty of this sports drama is that it wisely allows every character space to grow. This is indeed a rare occurrence in a film helmed by an A-list star.
Even the villain, Mehta in the sports committee, played brilliantly by Atul Kale, grows oh-so-slightly as the narrative develops. In the end we see Mehta umbrella over Tapan Das’s head as the skies open up in England to bless the Indian team.
Akshay gamely allows the plot to acquire a pulsating predponderance. This is in keeping with the film’s theme: country before self or state. Writer Rajesh Devraj and director Reema Kagti begin on a shaky ground. The opening match in pre-Independence India in Berlin presided by a Hitler lookalike who looks like a very poor country-cousin of the original, is a near-disaster…for the hockey players and for us.
But hang on. Don’t be in a hurry to write off the losing team. Gold shows us the glimmer that underscores every defeat. Much of the plot is predictable. But the fault therein lies with history. The film could also be faulted for its uneven pace. At least two song breaks with Akshay Kumar doing tipsy trapeze at social gatherings are more embarrassing for us than for his on-screen wife, played as a squeaky Bengali by Mouni Roy. Mouni is only watching her husband Tapan Das make a fool of himself in public. We are witness to a much greater calamity as Akshay Kumar slips into the slush of the slosh and gives his weakest performance in recent years. The endearing goofy mannerisms are now becoming annoying. Or as Tapan Das would say, “Okshoi Babu kooch godbod chol roha hoi.”
But here is the heartening news. Gold succeeds in turning its weaknesses into its strengths. The flaws in the actors’ performances frequently contribute to the film’s theme of triumph-against-all-odds. We just can’t help cheering for the underdogs, can we? Especially when they are out there to bring glory to the country.
By the time the final match in London (shot with brilliant lucidity at a hurried yet even rhythm by cinematographer Álvaro Gutiérrez) happens, we are reflexively up on our collective feet singing the national anthem along with our hockey heroes.
Damn, did we just get emotionally manipulated? Bring it on.