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Gujarat 11, Review: Mardaani meets Chak De! India, but misses goal

Drawing inspiration from the 2007 hockey film Chak De! India and blending it with the 2014 female cop action-thriller Mardaani, Gujarat 11 is the first sports film in the Gujarati language. It is not about hockey, but football, and the team that is cobbled together by the cop turned coach is definitely not the Gujarat 11. Rather, it is a team consisting of boys under 18, picked from juvenile delinquent homes, to make a winning team. The film, however, fails to win you over, despite shifting the goal-post many times.

A sub-inspector called Divya is dancing wildly to the dandiya (Gujarati folk tradition gone mod) beats of a live orchestra when someone whispers something in her ear. Cut to a drug deal being made, which is intercepted by Divya, and a long chase and fight follow. At the end, the dealer is apprehended and locked-up. This brings the boy’s father to the office of the Police Commissioner. Turns out that he is an influential politician and threatens Divya with dire consequences unless his son is released immediately. The Commissioner seems helpless. Divya refuses to bend, and gives the politician a lesson in law and cleanliness.

Not surprisingly, Divya is upset, a fact that is noted by her mother, who is more of a friend to the only child of a martyred police officer. Her fears come true when she is shunted to supervise a juvenile delinquents’ home. According to Indian criminal law, a minor, somebody who is not 18, cannot be sent to jail, and has to be sent to a juvenile delinquents’ home. Her arrival and her disciplinary ways rub the Superintendent the wrong way, and he develops an animus towards her. When she decides to form a football team after scouting other such homes in the State of Gujarat, he is further enraged, and suggests that these boys are hardened criminals (they do include murderers and drug peddlers) and only understand the language of a good beating. Moreover, he fears that they will use the freedom of practicing football to escape from their custodial home. But the Commissioner and a childhood friend, Nirmal, who is now a millionaire, stand by her.

How one hopes that writer director Jayant Gilatar and his writing team of Shilpa Ganji, Hemang Vyas, Rajesh Latkar, Shubhendra Pal and Dilip Rawal had not fallen into the trap of being different for the sake of being different. One can remove Vyas and Rawal from this list, for they contributed only the dialogue. But the rest are credited with story and screenplay. It must have weighed heavily on the writers’ minds that there have been half a dozen films made on sports in Hindi in the last six years, and that there is only so much you can do with a match, if you want to end up on the winning side. So, they tried to be different.

They made their protagonist a football-player turned sub-inspector, who revels in shaking a leg and the rest of her anatomy, given the chance. And the chance is provided by music director RoopKumar Rathod’s live orchestra. In fact, the film begins with this extended dance number. Right on cue, a colleague comes and whispers into her ear that a drug deal is about to be struck. That now gives the lady a chance to throw her legs in the horizontal position and use her hands like the symbolic sticks that are part of a dandiya dance (dandiya means sticks). It is a protracted cat and mouse chase and the enemy is not easily overcome, but overcome he is, at last. Then the entire track of the politician is another complete distraction. Her sweet as sugar mother is too syrupy to appear real. By the time they get to football in earnest, 70 minutes of the film, 50% of the running time, are over!

So, should they have jumped into the game from the word “Action?” Not necessarily. You can take your time to get to your core subject, but not so much time. And what you do before you get going is important too. Here, the side-track is rather long and fails to fall-in with the storyline. Dialogue, on the other hand, is pithy, with several examples of repartee. So much so that you feel they could have gone a little easy on the pit-pat and wit-sarcasm. Variations of Gujarati accents are also cleverly employed. Making fun of a boy who talks with a lisp and bringing in a character who is gayish, if not fully gay, to indulge in double entendre are elements that could have been avoided. What is more, they even have a boy who is mute, though he can hear, and makes unintelligible sounds when trying to speak. None of this is in good taste.

Jayant Gilatar is credited with making the Gujarati version of Natsamrat (2018), a much raved venture. He started off in television with Akbar-Birbal, directing a whopping 4000 episodes. As feature film director Himmatwala (1998) was his debut film. Meri Pyaari Bahania Banegi Dulhania (2001), The White Land (2005), and Chalk N Duster (2016) followed, all in Hindi, none ascending any dizzy heights. Use of montage and rapid cutting in shooting football games is a given, and Gilatar goes down that way too. But all of it is so predictable…you know before the film begins that this team of young criminals will win the tournament, but not before serious hiccups, like attempted escapes and injuries to key players.

It is only in the essaying of Divya’s childhood friend, who has a big crush on her, that we see some touches of subtlety. Otherwise, everything is stereotypical, including a staging of an all boys’ Ramayan, with lisper playing a key role and one enterprising inmate urinating in the shoes of what become the famous wooden sandals of Raam that Bharat takes with him to place on the throne after their father, King Dashrath’s death, as a symbol of his ascent to the throne, in the original Ramayan.

Daisy Shah as Divya has strong screen presence, and does both action and dance sequences with flair. She seems to sport a slight sneer, which is probably her seriousness improperly reflected on her face. Looks-wise, she can play Rani Mukerji-Chopra’s younger sister, not to forget that Rani was the heroine of Mardaani, which has a sequel on the way. Pratik Gandhi as Nirmal, the man who places his money where his heart is, is no Brad Pitt, but he underplays his role with finesse and grace, convincing us that his sublime, one-sided love for Divya is genuine beyond doubt. Popular model Kavin Dave as the pot-bellied assistant of Divya is made to speak with an accent and steals a few scenes, never conscious of his oversized physique. As the slimy, misguided Superintendent, Chetan Daiya strikes the right chords, till he is made to laugh mockingly towards the end, and that seriously takes away some of the credit due.

Since there are so many members in the cast and in the final team (football has 16 players), it is impossible to remember their names and characters together. Sources list Pradip Harsora, Miraj Joshi (Girish ‘Gendo’, noticeable role), Kevin Mehta (Manu), Avadh Mehta (‘Rangeelo’, spouts all the vulgarities), Omkar Palwankar (Kedar, one of the meatier roles),  Mishika Kheni (Child Divya), Manav Soneji (Vicky), Hridhaan Ahuja (Child Nirmal), Amit Thakkar (Hariyo), Akash Arneja, Debanjan Chatterjee, Luqman Qureshi and Amanulla Mohammed (Sudipto). There is a European actress too, playing a physio-therapist. Obviously, the ragtag team can afford one, and the fact that she speaks Gujarati must have been a distinct advantage, as qualifications go.

RoopKumar Rathod’s tunes and Dilip Rawal’s lyrics are tuneful and catchy. Suyog Churi lifts a popular western tune and uses it repeatedly as the background score. Vishal Sangwai’s camerawork is just passable. Can one blame editor Pankaj Sapkale for letting a 110 minute subject drag on to 140? Not really! Entire sequences would have to be chopped off to bring the film down to a watchable length, a full 30 minutes of brutal excision, which is what it would take to complete a football game, including half-time and extra-time/injury time, etc.

A first in Gujarati notwithstanding, the Gujarat 11formation is only mildly, occasionally entertaining, winning its game against Maharashtra against all odds, but losing the star wars **2:5*****

Rating: **