Honestly, my expectations from Kai Po Che were zero. First up, the trailer looked almost exactly like Dil Chahta Hai, and I didn’t like that film. Second, I’ve always felt it takes – or should take – less time for Chetan Bhagat to write his books than for people to read them. However, Abhishek Kapoor’s adaptation shows what fine acting, good direction, and a well-crafted screenplay can do with a novel that I cannot imagine having been well-written. When the film opens to Govind Patel (Rajkumar) making a presentation on the achievements of Sabarmati Sports Academy, I sighed. When, in the film’s next scene, a man takes down photographs from a wall and leaves prison, my interest was piqued. When Omi (Amit Sadh) asks Govind if Ishaan hasn’t come, and we go into flashback mode on a car ride, I decided the film was all about a misunderstanding between friends, which will eventually be ironed out. I was to find out it gets far more complex, mainly because of the layers the actors bring to it.
We’re drawn back into this film by a small, hilarious gag involving a pen and Govind. That Rajkumar is an excellent actor was evident from his small roles in Gangs of Wasseypur and Talaash. In this film, he steals every scene he’s in, reacting even when he is off-focus and bringing so much conviction to his character as the grounded, pragmatic, socially awkward, ambitious one that no praise will suffice for his superlative performance.
The casting is a key factor in the appeal of this film. Debutant Sushant Singh Rajput as the cricket-crazy Ishaan, and Amit Sadh as the prospective heir to a political party have challenging roles, and their capacity to portray intense emotion, without hamming, is severely tested. Both are equal to the task. And then, there’s Amit’s Bittu Mama. After wondering why the actor looked so familiar, I was shocked to discover during the credits that it was Manav Kaul, a poet-playwright I’d interviewed after his directorial debut Hansa. That the soft-spoken, thoughtful man could turn into the rabble-rousing, hate-spewing politician here is testimony to his skill as an actor.
Everyone in the film, including the child actor Digvijay Deshmukh, emotes with the eyes. And it is because we sense the flicker of hope, the shock of betrayal, the hurt over an old wound in their eyes that we grow fond of them. These aren’t characters, these are the people we know, the people we are. And they’re not part of the story, they lead the story.
Yes, there are some holes in the plot, but we hardly notice them because of subtle directorial touches that nudge us towards larger questions of right and wrong – like the survival instinct of a peace activist who stabs someone to save himself; like the tender smile on the face of a father who makes up with his son as he leaves on a pilgrimage; like the guilty sobs of a man who murdered someone by accident, when he meets the victim’s sister.
The end comes as a twist, thanks mainly to a clever line up front, but never strikes us as gimmicky. And while the final scene is somewhat predictable, occurring as it does in the kitschy surroundings of a cricket match, it works because it’s juxtaposed so well with an earlier scene.