Director: Vivek Agnihotri
Cast: Arshad Warsi, John Abraham, Bipasha Basu, Boman Irani
Storyline: An underdog Asian football team must win a championship to save its club.
Bottomline: The Gadar of sports films
Goal is not half as bad as you think it is.
It only suffers in comparison to the other three great films made in the sports film genre in the last decade.
So there, we’ve seen sport as part of folklore (Lagaan), sport as part of an underdog’s triumph with a sensibility that appealed to the multiplex audience (Iqbal) and sport that appealed to the critics and the classes – refined, gender-sensitive and restrained yet dramatic (Chak De).
In comparison, Goal is just your average Hindi masala film. Only that here, the dishum-dishum happens on the field. The sporting action per se is not bad at all and the cast too is pretty solid.
Then why do the critics hate it?
Goal has no clue how to dribble sensibilities.
It wants to be subtle and restrained as Chak De, but it also wants to be overtly patriotic as Lagaan and it also wants to lighten up the mood like Iqbal but it does not have the ball-game that is considered a religion or one that wears the National Sport tag to reignite lost passion.
So Goal, right from the word Go, comes across as a wannabe trying to embrace an foreign sport and fumbles in trying to forge a credible context for us to go gaga over football in the UK.
Look at the challenges: First, why would anyone here root for an underdog football team there? The team can’t possibly be full of Indians living in the UK. That wouldn’t be realistic at all.
Hence, the filmmaker’s compulsive need to manufacture pop-patriotism by adopting an all-inclusive pan-Asian identity grouped together by colour, so that rivals can be classified as Us browns (Hindustani, Pakistani, Bangladeshi) versus Them (the whites) using racism as the context for conflict.
This, Vivek Agnihotri achieves by blurring the lines between the Indian, Pakistani and the Bangladeshi identity. He makes the Pakistani run a joint called Little India, he has the Indian being called Paki by a rogue white racist player and includes in the team, an affable Sikh and an emotional Bangladeshi whose identities extend beyond geographical boundaries.
What stands to be lost here is the pride of Asian football – the Southall United Football Club – that also resembles the state of the sport in Asia with lack of funds, facilities and infrastructure.
Setting this context is an achievement by itself but Goal but is more ambitious. It does not stop at letting us buy this already contrived context, it wants to add more drama, trigger tragedy and orchestrate your sympathy. This is where Goal starts going horribly wrong.
I cringed in my seat when the father figure of the Club dies of a heart attack after hearing the news that the City Council will take away the land because of its inability to pay the lease. Just a moment before that, Arshad with tears escaping his eyes, keeps referring to the Club as their “zameen”. Fighting for your pride and space is one thing, fighting for “desh ki dharti” in foreign land is not just contrived, it is stupid.
The first act is ridden with such cringe-inducing clichés and devices of convenience employed in the narrative. They need a coach, they find one, he is initially hesitant, one scene later, he’s game. They need a strike player, they find one, he doesn’t give a hoot, two scenes later, he’s game too. They need a bus, three scenes later, they get one.
Sports films as a genre have a predictable arc and the only way you outplay those limitations is by making the seemingly predictable developments difficult and interesting.
Goal is full of lazy screenwriting.
What’s the game-changer then?
There is this speech somewhere in the middle when the coach (Boman Irani) breaks down out of helplessness and frustration. Unlike Chak De, he’s no Tuglak. Boman’s Tony is a soft-spoken coward. It is impossible to ignore such sincerity in performance.
Even John Abraham seems at home having a ball. One of his best, most natural performances, simply because he seems to be enjoying all that he’s doing – playing ball, stealing kisses from Bipasha and looking bratty enough to fit the role. Raj Zutshi as the Sikh, with the best lines in the film, always manages to score.
But it is Arshad Warsi who carries this film. He breathes life into cardboard and manages to inflate his Shaan into a 3D character – whether he’s in the shoes of the player, the brother or the husband, Arshad’s a natural, a delight to watch. When the otherwise level-headed leader of the pack (he waits till he scores two goals on the mark before making his mates cheer for him) loses his cool seeing John on the field, his team-mate gently reminds him: “If we had to play like this, why ask Tony to coach?”
Or later in the film when without a word being spoken, a two-shot reveals that the rival heroes make up with a simple gesture of putting their arm around each other before taking the field.
With this team of actors at play giving earnest performances, you are tempted to forgive the umpteen number of melodramatic twists slapped into the film. Like the sub-plot about John’s father. These moments seem to belong to a completely different movie. That’s how inconsistent the sensibilities within the film are.
But for a while, just for a minute, forget Chak De or Iqbal or Lagaan. Goal, in spite of its patchy playing ground of a screenplay, manages to make you take note of a few talented blokes who are having fun passing ball.