NEW DELHI (Reuters) - A new Bollywood film that focuses on gender inequality in India through women's field hockey and adds a dash of patriotism has pleased critics and scored at the box office as well.
"Chak De India" (Go For It India), which opened last week starring Shahrukh Khan, the most bankable star in the Hindi language film industry, is loosely based on the true story of a 1980s Indian national men's hockey goalkeeper.
Khan plays the Muslim captain of the Indian team who misses a do-or-die penalty shootout against arch rival Pakistan in the final of a world championship, sparking a national outrage and triggering charges of match-fixing, leading to his ouster.
He returns seven years later as the coach of a ragtag women's national team and transforms a bunch of divided girls from far corners of the country into world beaters. "It's a big success, it's a definite earner," said Bollywood trade analyst Komal Nahta.
"Two things are responsible - one it is a very well written screenplay, and secondly it has got so much patriotism, it has worked."
Bollywood films based on sport are not rare but most of them have revolved around cricket as the country boasts the largest following for the game in the world. Some stories have also been set around boxing.
Field hockey, once India's national sport and one in which the country ruled the world for a large part of the last century, has lost its appeal along with a decline in the national team's fortunes.
"Chak De" was a winner not only because it has managed to make hockey a topic of conversation but also because it peddles patriotism, fights gender bias, rips apart class distinctions and makes a valid criticism of regional chauvinism and minority bashing, critics said.
While Khan, the reigning star of Bollywood, has been praised for his uncharacteristically understated acting - with some critics saying he may not be able to better this performance - his team of unknown actors has also drawn widespread appreciation.
Some of the biggest applause in cinema halls showing "Chak De" comes when the women go around breaking Indian stereotypes - walking out of homes, beating up men who harass them in public and declining marriage proposals - all for hockey.
"Director Shimit Amin not only manages to make the impossible possible, he does it with a delicate sensitivity and sensibly steers clear of all cliches," critic Nikhat Kazmi wrote in the Times of India.
The opening of the film was timed to coincide with the 60th anniversary of India's independence from British colonial rule and "Chak De" has the inevitable hint of jingoism so popular with Indian audiences.
One of the players in the film asks Khan's character what he was doing outside in the dead of the night as flags are being raised on the eve of a world championship final his team has entered in Melbourne.
Khan replies: "I am watching a white man raise the Indian national flag for the first time."