You know, if I’d hated or loved Kai Po Che, I’d probably have vomited a few hundred words about it right after its premiere. But it’s neither brilliant nor abysmal. It’s strictly ok as far as filmmaking goes. The first part of the film is uneventful and verges on boring. The latter half, possibly in an effort to compensate, is stuffed with Big Events. The characters are flat. They don’t learn anything from their experiences. Nothing changes them, not an earthquake, not falling in love, not age, not even death.
But the soundtrack by Amit Trivedi was quite lovely as was the score. The cinematography (by Anay Goswami) looked good, although everything was a little too yellow for my liking. I mean, I realise Gujarat (where Kai Po Che is set) is considered an example of India Shining, but surely we don’t need every frame to radiate a golden glow? Most of the acting was good and a few actors, like Rajkumar Yadav and Manav Kaul, even managed add some nuance and complexity to the horribly uni-dimensional characters. I thought the film had problems, but it was watchable. Far worse than Kai Po Che hits Indian cinemas on a regular basis.
I managed to keep my mouth shut (more or less) when pimples of praise for Kai Po Che, describing it as brilliant or soul-stirring, started oozing on Twitter. But now that reviews for the film are out, I can’t help it. I’ve read the reviews and I need to explode. Heeere we go.
As briefly (and impartially) as I can, here’s the plot of Kai Po Che.
Govind, Ishaan and Omi are three friends who live in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. Govind is the most serious of the three. Ishaan was a promising cricketer as a teenager but his sporting career didn’t go far. When we meet him, he’s unemployed, hot-headed and besties with Omi, who isn’t the brightest tool in the shed, but he’s loyal and sweet. We know the three are good friends because they do things like go on road trips together, chest bump one another and run around aimlessly in picturesque settings.
Determined to make something of himself, Govind decides to open a shop where you can buy sports supplies and get cricket coaching tips from Ishaan. The only place they can afford to set up shop is in a building owned a temple. Omi’s father is a priest at this temple and Omi’s uncle, Bittu, belongs to right-wing, Hindutva-touting political party (code: red flag) which controls the temple’s trust fund. So Omi butters up his uncle and soon enough, the trio have opened up the Sabarmati Sports Club.
Ishaan quickly gets a bunch of kids as his students. One of them tells him about Ali, a poor Muslim kid who is a good batsman. Ali impresses Ishaan but there’s a complication. Ali’s father works for a non-Hindu political party (code: green flag) and is one of Omi’s uncle’s opponents. Ishaan is dazzled by Ali’s talent and he convinces Ali’s father to let the boy come for coaching, even if it is in the enemy lair. Incidentally, Omi is distinctly jealous of Ishaan’s fondness for Ali.
While Sabarmati Sports Club seems to be doing alright, Govind is keen to make it bigger. He wants to set up a second shop in a mall. Ishaan convinces the usually-cautious Govind to bid for a large, prime spot in the under-construction mall even though they don’t have the money for it. Omi is made to go to his uncle again, this time asking for a loan. Bittu gives Omi the money and in exchange wants Omi to work for the Red Flag party, which Omi agrees to do.
Then the 2001 earthquake strikes Gujarat and the mall in which they booked a plot is reduced to rubble. Govind’s only thought is of the money they’ve lost. Omi is working on earthquake relief programmes run by Red Party. When Ishaan shows up at the Red Flag Party camp with Ali and his family, hoping they will be given shelter, the Red Flag Party workers tell him they won’t help Muslims. This leads to a brawl between Omi and Ishaan. Besties turn to haters.
Govind finally rouses himself and reopens Sabarmati Sports Club, only to discover Ishaan has taken the only bit of cash they had not invested in the mall, and given it to Ali’s family to rebuild their house. Another fight follows. While Govind makes up with Ishaan, Omi and Ishaan’s pouting contest continues. A cricket match in which India wins, however, helps bring the two back together. In the meanwhile, Govind and Ishaan’s sister fall in love and canoodle.
A year later, Godhra drives a wedge between Omi and Ishaan again. Omi’s parents are among the Hindu pilgrims who were burnt to death in the Sabarmati Express, which is believed to have been set on fire by radical Islamist mobs. Bittu doesn’t hesitate to use the train-burning to rouse his party workers. They plan to attack Muslim colony in which Ali’s father (who is Bittu’s political opponent) lives. Govind and Ishaan try to take Omi home, but Omi chooses to stay with Bittu and the Hindu mob. Because when a man has lost his parents, he will feel more comfort with a bunch of bloodthirsty party workers who want to kill some Muslims in revenge rather than with his two oldest friends.
Worried about Ali, Ishaan and Govind go to the Muslim boy’s home. They’re trapped there with other Muslim families who had nothing to do with the train burning when Bittu shows up with a furious mob of Hindu rioters, baying for Muslim blood. Ali’s father tries to calm things down, but it’s futile. Bittu and his peeps break into the Muslim colony. Omi roams around in a daze, with a sword in hand, watching people kill one another. He spots Bittu in a fight with Ali’s father. While the audience knows Bittu was the one who attacked Ali’s father, Omi only sees Ali’s father kill Bittu. This enrages him further. He takes the gun Bittu had dropped and chases Ali’s father.
Ishaan and Govind try to help Ali and his father escape. They also try to stop Omi, but Omi is unstoppable. At one point, Omi spots Ali and his father. He pulls out Bittu’s gun and fires. Ishaan comes between Ali’s father and the bullet, and dies.
Omi goes to jail. He comes out about 8 or 9 years later. Govind, who is now a successful sports talent manager, is waiting for Omi when Omi comes out of jail. Omi and Govind go to see Ali play make his debut in the Indian cricket team. Govind cries. Omi cries. Ishaan lives on in all their memories.
This film according to India Today is “New Bollywood, evolving exactly as it should”, even though it’s got absolutely nothing new in it. Bromances, hero dying at the end, cricket matches that turn underdogs into heroes — everything in Kai Po Che has been done before, and repeatedly at that. In another review, the critic writes that the director “builds plot brick-by-brick through its running time, all the while aiming for an emotion-ridden finale. While the pay-off is surely rewarding, the lack of a strong story for a large part does bother.” So he builds the plot “brick-by-brick” but there’s not much of a story? That certainly is remarkable. Never mind the fact that building a plot up to a finale is pretty much the basic requirement of any conventional film script. To praise someone for managing that is like congratulating a healthy human being for breathing regularly.
Kai Po Che has been praised for being ‘real’. How do we know it’s real? It’s set in Ahmedabad, which is real, and not Mumbai, which is presumably fake. Also, the three are not affluent. Never mind the fact that this country does have rich people. And that for most of us, friendships are usually not aerobic exercise sessions. Don’t even get me started on Ishaan and Govind’s “business plan” for the talent scouting agency. It’s drawn with permanent markers on chart paper. When one school board says they don’t see the point of investing in sport, Ishaan loses his temper and says sports teaches discipline and control. What a poster boy for the benefits of learning a sport.
If you really want your head to spin, read Taran Adarsh’s fawning review here, in which he declares the director has “chartered” (not charted; that would be so plebian) a new path and made “the kind of cinema that pushes boundaries”. Actually, there’s some truth to Adarsh’s statement because Kai Po Che deserves credit for being the first Bollywood film to go past homoerotic undertones and putting a proper homosexual love affair out there. Omi and Ishaan are quite obviously a gay couple. They’re possessive about one another, rub up against one another at the slightest chance and essentially do everything that a heterosexual romantic pair would do in a Bollywood film, right down to literally chasing each other. For once, there’s no fig-leaf girlfriend or wife for either Ishaan or Omi.
Everyone has praised the film for how it’s shown the riots in Gujarat, but of the reviews I read, Rediff discussed this aspect in the most detail. Kai Po Che is a “special film” that “projects the complex scenario in a believable and gripping manner.” Right. Some Muslims killed my parents, ergo I will kill many other Muslims — that’s complexity for you.
I can’t get over the fact that Omi’s horribly warped thinking didn’t bother anybody. Neither critics nor audiences (at the premiere, I mean) found anything off-sync about how any Muslim within reach must pay for what was done to Omi’s parents by a specific group of people. It seems justified to Omi and everyone else that a colony of innocent Muslims must die because some other Muslims (who have no connection beyond the nominal yoke of Islam to those being attacked) torched a train. We are expected to forgive Omi his urge to kill Muslims because some violent extremists killed his parents. (By which logic, if someone’s parents die in a car accident, then it’s justified for the child to go out and kill any driver s/he can lay his hands on.) The fact that Omi knows Ali’s father doesn’t make him pause. The fact that his dearest friend Ishaan is begging him to stop doesn’t matter.
When Govind picks Omi up from jail after Omi is released, Govind doesn’t ask any uncomfortable questions. He behaves as though nothing has changed because Govind forgives Omi. Killing Ishaan doesn’t kill their friendship. Why? Because they’re bros. Because deep inside, Omi is not the communal party worker we saw for half the movie or the murderer we saw in a long sequence near the end. He’s the friend we saw for three-quarters of the movie. He didn’t mean to kill Ishaan, after all. He just wanted to kill the Muslim guy and that’s ok. It’s a crime of passion. The passion in question being to kill innocent people because of their religion. This is the kind of thinking that is, apparently, real. This is the kind of logic that makes Kai Po Che the film of the year.
What. The. Fuck.
EDITED TO ADD:
For once, it’s the foreign press that did a sensible review of the film. Nicely done, The Globe and Mail.