The Olympics, 1936, Berlin. The Indian hockey team refuses to join the rest of the stadium in giving the Nazi salute to dictator Adolf Hitler. The moment arouses a flicker of hope that Reema Kagti’s Gold will similarly take the knee against the conventions and compulsions of the nationalistic sports movie. Could this be the film in which no flag will flutter in slow motion against a blue sky; no lump-in-the-throat-forming speeches will be delivered; no anthem will play before the end credits?
Alas, this is not to be in the Independence Day release, timed to coincide with the annual reminder of freedom from colonial rule. There are glimpses of a pre-1947 iteration of the national flag, soon followed by the statement “We will defeat England and overcome 200 years of slavery!” (repeated to the point of parody). The film is eventually wrapped up in the kind of emotion in which equally manipulative but far better made films such as Lagaan and Chak De! India trafficked. There is some hockey too, but not enough of it in a movie that claims to celebrate India’s historic defeat of its former coloniser just one year after Independence. A monumental sporting achievement is reduced to a series of individual epiphanies.
Gold presents itself as a work of fiction inspired by actual events, and is based on a story by Rajesh Devraj and Kagti, who has previously directed Honeymoon Travels Pvt Ltd (2007) and Talaash (2012). India’s victory is depicted as the effort of one man. Team manager Tapan Das (Akshay Kumar) is a local variant of the eccentric but dedicated coach so dear to the Hollywood sports film. Tapan has a mildly shady reputation, an enviable collection of patterned kurtas and seemingly unlimited access to liquor, but his heart beats for India (“I am only the one person in the country who can give you the gold,” he declares). Supported by a permanently pouting and suitably glamorous wife (Mouni Roy), Tapan assembles a team that has the best chance of winning the gold medal at the 1948 Olympics, but there are challenges, including Partition, intransigent players and interfering bureaucrats.
Only two players are allowed to grow personalities in a movie dedicated to its leading man’s feats. Amit Sadh plays an arrogant aristocrat and and Sunny Kaushal the hot-headed centre-forward. Their conflict is contrived to rustle up the drama before the predictable climax, but at least it provides much-needed distraction from Akshay Kumar’s overplayed coach.
Kumar is cast in the familiar mould of nationalist hero who overcomes doubt within and without to make India a better place. Akshay Kumar method rarely varies from one movie to the next (toilets the day before, affordable sanitary pads yesterday, and a gold medal for India today) as he leaps over every hurdle placed in his path. There is the disarming grin, the wheedling to extract favours and the charming personality that melts the opposition. Kumar’s Bengali accent is all over the Hooghly, and he doesn’t quite carry Gold with the panache of Aamir Khan’s Bhuvan in Lagaan (2001) or Shah Rukh Khan’s Kabir in Chak De! India (2007).
Gold cannot escape the shadow of these films. The sequences in which Tapan builds a team from scratch are reminiscent of Bhuvan’s efforts in Lagaan, while Tapan’s lectures on team unity are a diluted version of Kabir’s tactics in Chak De! India. The latter production’s hockey scenes remain unmatched for their degree of verisimilitude, and it doesn’t help that Gold is more worried about cranking up patriotic sentiment than showcasing the game itself. Even the recently released Soorma, a biopic of hockey player Sandeep Singh, did a better job on the field.
The gleaming cars, neatly ironed costumes, and orderly manner in which the props have been arranged barely convey the impression of the blood and sweat involved in achieving a seemingly unattainable goal. The pounding background score and on-the-nose dialogue heavily underline what is being seen on the screen. The sluggish pacing over 153 minutes contain few moments of surprise or discovery. In the end, the inevitable clamber for the exit gate is stalled in the final moments by the strains of the national anthem.