By Nadira Khan
I recently watched Sohail Khan’s Freaky Ali and I was delighted to see how golf could be a sport, played not just by the rich. The film also demonstrates how religion could be portrayed without any extra baggage. The film is the story of a hawker, Ali, who starts out selling undergarments at a roadside stall and eventually becomes a national golf player with skill and will.
The film starts with Ali (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), who sells a variety of undergarments at a busy and overcrowded market. He fails to sell even a single piece and, consequently, is fired by his boss. Later, he joins his friend, Maqsood (Arbaaz Khan) in hafta-vasooli (extortion debt-collection) for the local goon, Dangerbhai (Nikitin Dheer). One day he goes to collect hafta from a person at a golf course and accidentally attempts to play the game. He gets noticed as a natural by Kishan Lal (Asif Basra), a chacha from Ali’s neighborhood. From an extortion debt-collector, he becomes a golfing sensation. He wins against all odds and meets his dream girl, Megha (Amy Jackson), who is completely different from him, in terms of status and nature. This is a ‘feel good’ film as all the problems and complexities are sorted out at the end.
The divisions in the Indian society, whether sexual, religious, or based on ethnic identity, have been more apparent in the recent years. Ignoring such fissures, Freeky Ali romanticizes secular ethos and syncretic values among slum dwellers. Sulbha (Seema Biswas), a woman with a strong Hindu faith, brings up her foster son, Ali, in accordance with his own religion. Irrespective of religion, Ali’s neighbours in the slum seem excited, run across the golf course, and play the drums to cheer the newfound golfer. The film reminds me of Amitabh Bachchan-starrers from the 1970s and 1980s such as Amar Akbar Anthony (1977), Naseeb (1981), Coolie (1983), and Zanjeer (1973), where an underdog fights all odds to emerge victorious against a rich spoilt brat. Towards the end of the film, Ali proudly rehashes the famous dialogue from Amitabh’s film, Dewaar, to his opponent, Vikram Rathore (Jas Arora): “Tere pass bangla hai, garhi hai, makan hai, mere pass maa hai.” Though Freaky Ali is a sports comedy, the film becomes a melodrama between the gangsters and the nobles.
Before Freaky Ali, a plethora of Bollywood films have championed sports as a source of inspiration and dreams. This film could be located within the context of other underdog ‘sports films’, which is now one of the most important emerging genres of Bollywood cinema. Ashutosh Gowariker’s Lagaan (2001) opened the floodgates for sports films and soon we had numerous other films – Iqbal (2005) in cricket, Dhan Dhana Dhan Goal (2007) in football, Chak De! India (2007) in hockey, Bombay Velvet (2015) in boxing, Sultan (2016) in wrestling, etc. These films represent how the deprived and marginalised sections of Indian society achieve their dreams through sports. Lagaan narrates the story of a subaltern cricket team, which defeats the colonial English cricket team. In Iqbal, a deaf and dumb boy, Iqbal, achieves his dream of becoming a famous cricket player, surmounting his disability. Chak De! India narrates gender issues and identity crisis among Indian Muslims and represents the rehabilitation of its hero as an ‘Indian’ through victory on the hockey filed. In the tradition of such underdog sports films, Freaky Ali also recounts how a poor slum-dweller achieves his dream through ‘golf’ and wins over his girl. The film also challenges the conventional notion that golf is an ‘elite’ sport in India. Even today, playing golf is an expensive affair and only the rich can afford to play the sport. Ali becomes the representative of the subaltern class.
In the true Bollywood spirit, the film takes umpteenth artistic liberties. It turns into a superhero an unpolished man, who lives in a slum and who can’t even pronounce golf. Ali calls the sport ‘gulf’, perhaps insinuating the gulf that exists between those who play the sport and who can’t. Further, he wins the golf championship with a fractured hand and inspires other slum children to take up the sport.
What struck me as significant is the way Freaky Ali departs from the earlier stereotypical depiction of Muslims in mainstream films as either villains or aliens or as innately ‘good’, ‘sensible’, and ‘secular’. Ali carries no such baggage. Being a Muslim, he is not burdened with sacrificing his life for others and for the nation. It doesn’t make any fuss about the hero being Muslim; it doesn’t even matter. He could have been named anything other than Ali. The Muslim identity is not marked with indicators such as language, clothing, and etiquette in the film. The protagonist in the film just happens to be Muslim.
The dialogues are overpowering and dramatic; they induce cheap thrills. When a PYT reproaches Maqsood, “You are sick,” he corrects her saying, “No, I am Muslim.” A short man is called ‘ground floor’; ‘style’ is rhymed with ‘piles’.
The audience would enjoy the film if they shed all their logical and critical thinking. Though the film is based on the American sports comedy, Happy Gilmore, the melodramatic tamasha between the rich and poor reaches a level of idiocy and becomes a source of laughter.
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Nadira Khan recently completed her doctorate in film and cultural studies at TISS, Mumbai. She is Films Editor at Cafe Dissensus. Twitter: @NadiraKhan11
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