For a nation obsessed with cricket, names like Santhi Soundarajan and Dutee Chand may not ring a bell. And though we might be more aware of doping and match-fixing, gender testing in sports is, for a majority of us, an alien concept. This is why Rashmi Rocket — despite not being fully realised as a narrative — is important. Santhi, an Asian Games medal winner, failed the sex test after the 2006 Games. Dutee failed the test and was dropped from the 2014 Commonwealth Games. Unlike Santhi, whose career came apart and who attempted suicide, Dutee fought the ruling and went on to participate in the 2016 Olympics. These factual instances, and the real obstacles that athletes in India, particularly women athletes, face, provide the foundation for Akarsh Khurana’s film, written by Kanika Dhillon, Aniruddha Guha and Nanda Periyasamy.
However, though the message is unambiguous and the narrative well-meaning, the end result is somewhat of a mixed bag. Fact and fiction exist in what is at best an uneasy mix. The facts in themselves are dramatic enough but the writers and filmmakers are not content — in fictionalising, they resort to some uncalled-for drama (the lawyer getting into fisticuffs with journalists maligning Rashmi, for example) that upsets the film’s equilibrium.
Rashmi Vira (Tapsee Pannu), the daughter of a tour guide in Kutch, is born to run. Right from her childhood, when she outruns boys, the question ‘Chhora hai ki chhori?’ stalks her. A backstory involving the earthquake in Bhuj reveals why she has given up running, till she comes across Major Gagan (Priyanshu Painyuli), who drives her to take to running once more. Thus begins Rashmi’s ordeal as she achieves glory for the country before being subjected to the humiliation of her gender being questioned at the behest of jealous rivals and a prejudiced sports association. Enter lawyer Eeshit Mehta (Abhishek Banerjee) who offers to fight her case, and the sporting drama goes off-track to become a courtroom saga.
A strong basic premise and competent performances — Tapsee and Abhishek in particular, with Supriya Pathak making quite an impression in a small role as Rashmi’s equally stubborn and determined mother — are offset by cliches and familiar tropes. Rashmi’s more entitled rival and the sports association honchos are standard Hindi film ‘bad’ while the lawyer’s smug ex-boss looks straight out of a 1980s’ melodrama. If these keep the narrative from finding its feet, some of the courtroom arguments are rather juvenile in their effort to be audience-pleasing (the Phelps/ Bolt/ Sehwag analogy, for example, is unconvincing as an argument).
There is hokey stuff like Rashmi talking to her unborn child in the womb — yes, she has to become a mother to prove she is a woman — and an entirely gratuitous item number ‘Ghani cool chhori’. Then there are incongruous bits that defy reasoning — which become more glaring because of the otherwise rooted nature of the narrative. The ease with which a long-distance coach finds a novice, untrained sprinter a place in the national team, or even Rashmi’s sprint to save a soldier from stepping on to a landmine (what is it doing in the middle of a desert?) which first alerts the coach to her potential.
One senses the important question underpinning the narrative: What does it take to be a woman — is testosterone all there is or is motherhood the answer? It’s not a question that has a ready, easy answer. The muddle of a narrative that Rashmi Rocket is — alternating between campy courtroom shenanigans and wannabe sporting saga — barely scratches the surface of that prickly issue.
(Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri is an award-winning publisher, editor and a film buff)