moments in filmi feminism (the first installment in an occasional series): the restaurant brawl in Chak De! India
Here it is, briefly. The girls have just told coach Kabir Khan that they want him out. On his last day of work, he invites them to join him and the staff for lunch. Everyone sits silently at McDonald's, dejected and contemplative. Molly and Mary, the two girls from the northeastern states (Manipur and Mizoram, if I read the official website correctly), go up to the counter, and on their return to their table are again harassed by male onlookers (they've already been leered at outside the training center).
Balbir has had enough
and physically attacks one of the guys.
He shoves back, Mary and Molly join in, and the fight grows to involve all the girls and many boys who were either in the restaurant already or rush in from outside once they see the scale of the fight.
Kabir stops staff Krishnaji and Sukhlal from quieting things down
and only interrupts the fight to caution a boy that to attack from behind is cowardly (and takes another jab at cricket, a running joke in the movie).
A car window is broken, the seating area is trashed,
and Sukhlal is stunned.
Khan says "I told you, Sukhlal. It is spirit, not strength, that makes a team."
The girls gather round and try to stammer out an apology and an invitation to Khan to stay on as coach. He doesn't wait for their formal request and tells them to be on the field early tomorrow morning. Cut to the team walking out of the restaurant and Sukhvinder Singh singing "Chak de! Chak de India!"
Here's what's bugging me. Apart from this scene, Chak De! India is for me a feminist film, unapologetically, boldly, with heart and humor. But women taking on the worst behavior of men and/or male-established/dominated society is not what feminism about. You don't get to attack people because they mistreat you. Of course these jackasses deserved to be punished. Their behavior was harmful and hurtful and unacceptable. I was totally with Balbir when she yelled at them, and I absolutely do not think females must be quiet and just bear whatever sh*t is dished out at them. But vigilante violence isn't really the answer here - in my mind, it's not even an answer (which is one reason I don't always love the 1970s Angry Young Man acrhetype). In a story that highlights personal and professional success by playing by the rules and behaving ethically and with concern for others, it doesn't fit. I'm so disappointed that not only does the movie have the girls engage in this behavior, it also has this outburst of short tempers and violence serve as the bonding moment, the experience that enables the very existence of the team continue. What's the message here? The enemy of my enemy is my friend? We will rise when we beat down others? The people who mistreated us behave like this, so we should too? Violence demonstrates our potential for greatness?
Two other problems. It was a cheap tactic to have the big, angry Punjabi girl lead the physical fight - the writers just let her be a stereotype. (When she lashes out physically again later, on the field against the already violent Argentian team, it makes a lot more sense. It falls within the behaviors established for that set of interactions. I have no problem with that.) Additionally, we aren't shown any consequences for this behavior except the team's sudden show of "spirit" and their subsequent realization that they can work together effectively with Khan leading them. No one from the restaurant calls the police, the team doesn't apologize to the restaurant workers, and no one who caused the mess helps clean up. Kabir, you want a team that beats the crap out of people in broad daylight and then shows no responsibility for what they've done? Great. I don't understand why the coach sees this as the moment that demonstrates the girls cohering into a working team.
Overall, the film shows the girls maturing and learning in wonderful ways throughout the rest of the film. They learn to be colleagues and the best possible versions of their individual selves. They try, they give, they share. It's glorious. But to me this scene falls far short of the nobility in the rest of the movie. When the girls lose control of their brains and give in to physical expression of anger and confusion - no matter how legitimate their anger and confusion may be (very!) - and are then only rewarded for their "team spirit," the film shows human beings benefiting by behaving badly. Boooo. Let's bench that baloney.
What do you think?
Update (August 26, 2008): Indie Quill and 24 Frames Per Second have responded to this question at length on their sites, so don't miss the great ideas and conversations there too.