This is Raj:
Like any typical Canadian kid, Raj (Vinay Virmani) dreams of playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs -- not only playing for them, but leading them to victory, to a Stanley Cup win for a team that hasn't seen the silver glint of Lord Stanley's punch bowl since 1967. I'm not much of a hockey fan, but even I have that date handy in my memory bank. Year after year, die-hard fans of my home-town's hockey team dream of getting just a little closer to that cup.
But Raj is also like many typical Canadian kids these days, who are the generation of immigrant parents who came to this country to make a better life. So Raj's fantasies end up mixed into those of his parents' culture, and his hockey victory is celebrated with Bollywood-style dancers. That is, until he's woken out of his reverie by his father, Darvesh Singh (Hindi cinema actor Anupam Kher). Darvesh takes great pride in telling the story of how he came to Canada with eight dollars in his pocket, how he sponsored his younger brother, Raj's Uncle Sammy (Indian actor Gurpreet Ghuggi), who took that eight dollars and turned it into the very profitable Speedy Singhs transport company.
Darvesh Singh's story is a familiar one here in Canada; but so is the story of his son, Raj, who grows up immersed in two cultures, that of his family, and the one that he lives in every day. Raj balances the expectations of his family -- working in his uncle's business, attending the local gurdwara -- with the life he really wants -- to become a hockey player.
Raj books rink time so that he can practice with his group of hockey loving friends, but he dreams of more. He dreams of taking on other teams -- "bigger...whiter..." as one of his friends describes them, teams like the Hammerheads, going head to head and coming out victorious. Raj wants to win the Hyundai cup.
He convinces the rink's custodian, Dan Winters (Rob Lowe), himself an NHL draft pick whose career was over almost as it began, mostly due to his inability to control his temper, to coach the team. He woos Dan's pretty sister Melissa (Camilla Belle). He...
It's true that Breakway is just a mish-mash of film clichés, tagged onto a story that comes straight from Bend It Like Beckham (complete with the actor who played the father in that film, Anupam Kher). It's true that though Vinay Virmani is kind of likeable and competent, he's really not got the acting experience, and perhaps the acting ability, to carry off the role of Raj, often sinking the film in the moments that require too much of him. To be fair to Virmani, this is his first film, and I've not seen anything he's done since, and I should correct that, because his growing filmography includes the film David, from director Bejoy Nambiar, and it would be interesting to see how he fairs in the hands of a director like Nambiar.
So we have the story of the underdog team fighting adversity to make it to victory. We have the immigrant kid fighting to make his place somewhere other than sandwiched between his family and society. The Sikh kid who takes off his turban and cuts his hair, to the utter disappointment of his father. The immigrant kid who doesn't want to be part of the family business. Smooshed in there is a bit of a love story.
It's really easy to look at Breakaway and see how it fails. But several viewings of Breakaway have had me seeing what the film does well, what it gets absolutely right.
First: the title. I love the title. It is, of course, a hockey term, but it also refers to a breaking with long-standing tradition, which pretty much encapsulates everything Raj is about. "I'm judged in this house for who I'm not," he tells his father, "and outside this house for who I am." Raj is the only one of his friends to make the choice to remove his turban and cut his hair; they don't judge him for it, but there are moments when Raj becomes an outsider for them, too. But "breakaway" sums up the need for the first generation born here to find some kind of balance between who they are, and who they are not.
Second: The Six. Breakaway is set in Toronto, and it celebrates that. It's a place where Raj can walk down Gerrard street and experience all the flavours of India, where you can play a game of shinny outside the gurdwara, where your music is likely a mix of bhangra (courtesy Jassi Sidhu) and rap, probably by Drake (who coined the term "The Six"). Where you can become a local television reporter, like Raj's cousin Reema, though you might have to fight to get more than the curry cook-off coverage.
Third: the Canadian experience. Some of Breakaway's most ham-handed writing comes when it spouts sections of the Canadian Human Rights code (though, you have to love a film that thinks it should be holding up that as our standard). But it also doesn't shy away from dealing with the racism that immigrants face -- though, quite honestly, I thought it downplayed it somewhat. I'm betting that visible minorities are exposed to far worse than what Breakaway dishes out, and we've seen some evidence of that in the news recently.
And if you think that the love of hockey by these Punjabi Sikh guys is totally a fiction created by the film, well, you'd be wrong. The changing face of Canada means the changing face of our national sport as well, or the changing language of coverage. In recent years, Hockey Night in Canada has broadcast games in Hindi, Mandarin, Cantonese, and, perhaps most famously, Punjabi, with that commentary originating on the CBC, but moving more recently to OMNI Television. And Punjabi players are gradually making their way into the big leagues.
Here's a taste of what it's like. Pretty much hockey...in Punjabi.
Of course, now I'm wondering how you say, "Keep your stick on the ice" in Punjabi.
As well, it also shows that immigrants take on roles in every aspect of Canadian society, adapt to them, and require us to adapt to their needs. The complaint filed against the Speedy Singhs -- that, with the exception of Raj, they don't wear helmets -- is a reminder of the debates that have taken place in the this country about the role of the Sikh turban in public life. The niqab debate during our country's most recent election reminded many of us of the "turban issue" of the 1980s, when Baltej Singh Dhillon joined the RCMP and his request to wear a turban instead of the traditional Stetson changed not only RCMP policy, but that of many other police and armed forces. And those changes have resulted in more changes over the years, to the point where a Sikh, Harjit Singh Sajjan, was recently appointed as our country's Minister of Defense, and the internet abounded with images of him during his deployment in Afghanistan. One of the members of the Speedy Singhs has a day job with the local police force, and is seen several times in his uniform, which incorporates a turban. This is what Toronto is like, folks.
So, Breakaway may not be The Great Canadian Hockey Film. It may not even be a great Canadian film. But I'll always have a small soft spot for it for what it gets right about the Canadian immigrant experience. Plus, how can I resist a fantasy Bollywood ice skating number set in front of a wintery Taj Mahal? I cannot.
This post is part of the Winter Sports Blogathon hosted by Le Mot du Cinephilique -- make sure to check out the posts from all the participants, too!