There must be some irony in the fact that I attended the screening of Abhishek Kapoor’s latest film, Kai Po Che, with two female blogging pals, Dolce and Larissa – in fact, we discussed the fact that Indian cinema is overdue for a female version of the friends bonding/coming of age film. And no, Aisha doesn’t count. The fact that Kai Po Che’s English tagline is “Brothers for Life” announces in no uncertain terms that the film is following in the tradition of films like Dil Chahta Hai and Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara. Fortunately, though, Kai Po Che doesn’t attempt to echo or compete with either of those films.
I will admit to approaching Kai Po Che with some trepidation. I’m not in the camp of people who willingly excoriate everything writer Chetan Bhagat does, but I will admit to being absolutely frustrated by his work. As Dolce points out, Bhagat’s Five Point Someone was a decently written book, but what set it truly apart were its themes (which were completely ruined in the film 3 Idiots – in fact, Bhagat should perhaps be grateful they didn’t credit him properly on the film, because the film completely missed the point of the message he was trying to convey in his book. And whatever you think of Bhagat’s writing, the man has his pulse on what a young generation of Indians are thinking, what they are dreaming, and if his books are wildly popular amongst that generation, it’s because of that fact alone). The Three Mistakes of My Life, the book on which Kai Po Che is based, is more frustrating: if I were Bhagat’s editor, that book would never have seen the light of day without a rewrite. I would have sent it back to him covered in red pencil marks, and I would have excised great swaths of it, including the ending. However: what I would have left in place was the core of the book, its themes, its messages. That’s what the makers of 3 Idiots got wrong, and it’s what the makers of Kai Po Che got so very right.
The film is set in Gujurat at the turn of the 21st century, the year 2000 already setting us up for the events we know are coming: the tour of the Australian cricket team and the test matches with India in 2001, the massive earthquake in 2001, and the communal violence that exploded after the Godhra train burning in 2002. This may seem like a broad canvas of events, but the time period is cleverly chosen to show how all of these real-life events change the lives of the film’s three protagonists, Govind (Raj Kumar Yadav) , Omi (Amit Sadh), and Ishaan (Sushant Singh Rajput).
Like many of their generation, the lives of these three friends have no meaning, no direction. They may have dreams, like Govind, who wants to go into business to make something of his life; or their dreams are already shattered, like those of Ishaan, who couldn’t translate his cricket success at school into anything more than an obsession with the game, and not much desire to do anything else except watch matches; or they’re like Omi, who knows what he doesn’t want – he doesn’t want to be a priest like his father – but beyond that, he has no idea what he does want to do with his life, except he wants it to be different than that of his parents.
Fortunately, Govind has a business plan that would give all three of their lives purpose: they open a sports shop and cricket academy (with academic tutoring on the side). Coaching cricket serves to channel some of Ishaan’s fiery, brash, impetuous personality, and his discovery of a local cricket prodigy, Ali (Digvijay Deshmukh), gives him someone and something to care about beyond himself. Govind is in his element managing the business, but his two friends, and his budding relationship with Ishaan’s equally impetuous sister, Vidya (Amrita Puri) serve to show him there is more to life than just watching the bottom line. And Omi? Omi is the one with the family connections, who uses them to first help get them a shop outside the temple where his father is a priest, and then to smooth over their financial difficulties by getting a loan from his uncle (the local Hindu party candidate). Like so many young people who have no definite plan for their lives, Omi finds himself drawn into the world of politics out of obligation for their debt to his uncle. But the film shows how fine the line is for someone like Omi to slide easily into the world of partisan politics. Working for his uncle’s party gives Omi the purpose and direction his life needs, makes him useful both to his family and to his friends, but with, as the film reveals, the possibility of terrible consequences.
There is that view that the three constants in India are politics, cricket and Bollywood, and Kai Po Che manages to combine all of these in a way that is engaging and thoughtful. If it fumbles, and it does, it’s in those moments where the attention is taken away from how the larger events influence the lives and actions of the film’s three leads and places it on the events themselves. The film is at its best when it focuses on the friendship of these three young men, representing the reality of such a deep, lifelong bond with its highs and its lows. Each of these friends bring out both the best and the worst in each other, and along the way, they each grow a little, rounding out each other’s rough edges as they begin their journey towards responsible adulthood.
What makes this friendship work so well, too, are the performances of the film’s three leads. Raj Kumar Yadav has already become a Totally Filmi Casa Favourite with his roles in films like Talaash and, most especially, Shahid (which screened at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2012). His Govind is sweet and shy, and his blossoming relationship with Vidya (a young woman who clearly knows what she wants, played delightfully by another Casa Fave, Amrita Puri) opens his eyes to a world beyond that of his magical numbers. Sushant Singh Rajput’s Ishaan is probably the character with the least development, but Rajput still manages to show us the conflict in Ishaan’s personality between the coach he is becoming, and the player he once was, making us wonder if he really understands the reasons why Ali is so important to him. Amit Sadh’s Omi is, perhaps, the surprise package of the three, taking Omi from the perpetual third wheel to someone who ends up truly broken by the events he ends up caught up in.
In a recent interview with journalist Aseem Chhabra, Chetan Bhagat stated that he thought the film was better than his book on which it based. And on that, he is absolutely right. The irony here is that everything I would have pulled from the book if I’d edited it? Is not in the film. Instead, the film gives us an emotional and touching look at the friendship of these three young men. The film may rely on all-too-familiar events as its backdrop, but Amit Trivedi’s music gives it a freshness and youthful drive that resonate with the story, and its three leads engage us from the moment we see them together on screen. There are moments I love these characters, and moments I love them less– but at every moment, I was glad to be able to share in their friendship, to experience them as real and human and flawed and yet perfect in all their imperfection.