Three buddies battle themselves and the world in pursuit of their dreams. So what’s new? Over the last decade and a bit, Hindi cinema has spun many such tales with success (Dil Chahta Hai, Rang De Basanti, 3 Idiots, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara).
The broad similarities apart, Kai Po Che isn't the same kettle of fish – the film is set against the backdrop of the Gujarat riots of a decade ago. It is the first commercial Mumbai movie to go there.
It might not induce instant superlatives. But Kai Po Che is a competently crafted, well acted and consistently engaging drama that makes its point without sinking into preachy paroxysms.
The film revolves around two tumultuous years in the lives of three boys whose equations with each other are thrown into severe turmoil by two calamitous events – the devastating earthquake of 2001 and the post-Godhra communal carnage of 2002.
While the catastrophes, one natural, the other politically orchestrated, constitute the principal flashpoints of the narrative, it is the story of love, friendship and dreams that Kai Po Che is primarily about.
It makes no grand statement about the dynamics of communal violence – it is quite apparent that isn’t its intention. In a way, this on-the-surface quality of the treatment works in the film’s favour.
Kai Po Che taps the obvious things – cricket, religion, politics, kite flying, Garba dance and the game of marbles – as it focuses on the eddies of Gujarat’s contemporary history as reflected in the fate of a bunch of believable, ordinary youngsters.
Pretty much in the manner of the piece of fiction that it is adapted from (Chetan Bhagat’s 'The 3 Mistakes of My Life'), Kai Po Che keeps things simple and uncluttered.
That enhances the film’s mass appeal quotient without compromising on the consistent tinge of realism that director and co-screenwriter Abhishek Kapoor imparts to the tale.
It weighs the immediate human cost of one of the most appalling fallouts of the rising tide of communal hate that engulfed post-Babri Masjid demolition India. So Kai Po Che necessarily addresses Gujarat’s known social and political fault lines.
However, it does not tie itself up in knots: it sidesteps the need to separate the perpetrators from the victims and dig deeper into the roots of the deep fissures that trigger hostility.
The somewhat simplistic and reconciliatory let-bygones-be-bygones plea is a constant thread through the film, but it does not, in any way, dilute the thrust of the basic story of a trio of friends who set up a sporting equipment shop and a cricket training academy in the heart of Ahmedabad.
Each of the three main characters represents a specific set of human traits, but neither of them is reduced to a single-note stereotype.
Ishaan Bhatt (Sushant Singh Rajput), an admired district-level cricketer, is the hot-headed, rebellious and somewhat reckless leader of the group.
Govind Patel (Raj Kumar Yadav), a habitual number cruncher, is the sedate, pragmatic, if socially awkward, young man.
Omkar Shastri (Amit Sadh), son of a temple head priest, is the malleable but fiercely loyal kind who is swept along with the tide of emotions.
Their friendship is tested in varied ways and the conflict points, like the rest of the film, unfold in a restrained and natural arc.
Ishaan spots a pre-teen batting prodigy, Ali (Digvijay Deshmukh), and takes him under his wings.
The gifted boy, who hits fours and sixes at will, belongs to the wrong side of the class and community divide. So his mentor must wage a lonely war against prejudice.
The gentle-spirited Govind, roped in to teach math to Ishaan’s little sister, Vidya (Amrita Puri), falls in love with the girl. He risks his best friend’s ire as he pursues the tremulous dictates of his heart.
And Omkar is torn between his commitment to his friends and his debt to a rightwing politician-uncle, Bittu Joshi (Manav Kaul), for all the help that the latter extends to the three boys in acquiring a small shop and a playground that could change their lives.
As external forces beyond their control and comprehension intervene repeatedly, the threesome is pushed into trying situations that are fraught with danger.
Abhishek Kapoor invests this tale of struggle, despair and hope with the unfailing power of humanism.
The tone of sustained optimism amid the gloom might however seem a tad too contrived.
Moreover, the cricket action scenes are not uniformly convincing. Some are pulled off with great aplomb; others are a little limp.
Especially jarring at times is the running commentary that are laid over the exploits of the young run machine – the film could have done without the voices that not only do little to add value, they also dilute the realism of the cricket scenes.
It is in the casting that Kapoor achieves his greatest triumph. The three lead actors are absolutely perfect.
Sushant Singh Rajput and Amit Sadh have the more emotionally intense roles. Not a step they take is false or unduly demonstrative.
No praise would be enough for Raj Kumar Yadav. Delivering a measured performance as the self-effacing man lost in “the magic of numbers”, he is a consummate scene-stealer.
Among the supporting actors, Manav Kaul, playing the rabble-rousing Bittu Mama, and Asif Basra, as Ali’s peace activist father, are top notch.
Amrita Puri, the sole principal female actor in an otherwise all-male cast, makes every moment on the screen count.
Kai Po Che is a must watch.