KAI PO CHE! Director: Abhishek Kapoor. Players: Raj Kumar Yadav, Amit Sadh, Sushant Singh Rajput, Amrita Puri. Music: Amit Trivedi. English and Gujarati (with Eng. Sub-titles). Theatrical Release (UTV).

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Floating new story ideas with a lesser known cast is a huge task for any film market. In Hindi movies, new casting is often hindered by industry power-brokers, many of whom have family connections to each other and are keen to get their own kin into plum roles. An entry like Kai Po Che! emerging successfully, therefore, is even more remarkable because it strikes a political and topical jab or tow by boasting a ground-breaking story and employing fresh talent that aptly stands its ground.

Three nearly-grown up childhood buddies decide to take a last trip before jointly opening a sporting shop. There is the hot-tempered Ishaan Bhatt (Rajput), the latently wayward Omi Shastri (Sadh) and the straight-forward Govind Patel (Yadav). In the rush to set up their business, the trio is almost oblivious to the encroaching forces of zealotry—religious, communal, capital venturists—who start to circle above the playing field like vultures patiently awaiting the passing of the migrating herd to leisurely gorge on any weaklings left behind.

The passion for cricket in India is roughly on par with the passion for soccer in Europe, South America and Africa. The single biggest sporting event on the Indian sub-continent—even bigger than the Olympics as a TV draw—is any cricket match-up between India and Pakistan. To be selected for the most elite teams is tantamount to attaining sporting’s Enlightenment—if not downright divinity—right there and then. And incidentally, cricket is not even the primary motivator in Kai Po Che!, a title unspooling from kite-flying that is popular in the Indian state of Gujarat.

Instead, the movie draws from the broadest geo-political events that come to mind for that part of India since the onset of the millennium—the Bhuj earthquake in 2001, Ahmedabad’s communal violence sparked by the Godhra train burning incident in 2002, the rise of Gujarat’s economy to become the fastest growing in India—weave in and out of a surprisingly taut and plausible narrative.

Even though the script shies away from broad swipes, the plot’s unwritten compass easily channels these Big Events all directly or indirectly towards Narendra Modi’s rise to prominence both in Gujarat and in India. For a Hindi movie to wade into regional Indian politics to this level is in itself significant.

Chetan Bhagat, in addition to become the biggest selling author in India, is also cornering a cottage industry in having his books turned into successful Hindi movies. His One Night @ the Call Center was made into Hello! (2008), Five Points Someone was made into the megahit 3 Idiots (2009), The Three Mistakes of My Life turned into Kai Po Che! and 2 States: The Story of My Marriage is currently being made into Karan Johar’s production of 2 States.

Newcomer Rajput stands out in a handful of highly uncompromising characters who coalesce with sensible here-and-now forcefulness. Another surprise is teenager Dijvijay Deshmukh who is amazing as Ali, a Muslim boy and budding cricket protégé whose family is victimized by sectarian violence. Ali’s friendship with Ishaan looms large for both of them.
Then there is Yadav, who recently played Aamir Khan’s assisting inspector in the new age ghost story Talaash, nicely channeling middle-class common-man angst. Yadav’s restrained, almost muted, romance here with Vidya (an able Puri), Ishaan’s sister, carries the same pathos that the late Sanjeev Kumar used to inject into his roles. Puri is fun to watch. One wishes Vidya’s role was more fleshed out.

By pulling back from the camaraderie offered by the trio’s friendship, it’s Sadh’s vulnerable Omi who falls prey to forces that threaten the trio’s blood-strong unity. Director Kapoor also gets kudos for the fitting portrayal of the carefree bonding friendship, celebrated through often shirtless escapades that border on the homoerotic.

Amit Trivedi’s beautiful score captures everything from community building that rises to a patriotic fervor in Trivedi’s own “Manja” and Trivedi and Milli Nair’s celebration of brotherhood with “Mithi Boliyan” to Shruti Pathak and Divya Kumar’s “Shuubhaarambh,” which pivots between a folk song and a Gujarati garba. Reinforced by Swanand Kirkire’s strong lyrics, Kai Po Che! is definitely a feather in Trivedi’s cap.

Filmed on location in Ahmedabad and Diu, the rustic Gujarat coastal vistas provide cinematographer Anay Goswani a sunny and beautiful setting. This local handiwork propagates the story of grounded-yet-restless prodigal sons who sojourn on adventures, get entangled in forces they don’t quite comprehend, seek solace in their origins and return to a bittersweet homecoming. Kai Po Che! simply aces the journey back to the home fires.

EQ: A

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