In a beautifully layered scene in Abhishek Kapoor’s Kai Po Che, the three friends Ishaan, Omi and Govind argue over an incident that throws their joint business into jeopardy. They are clearly angry at each other but also reveal their vulnerabilities, and somewhere deep down understand each other’s conflicting opinions. They argue but also don’t want to be arguing, and with simple glances, convey the deep connections that bind them together.
It’s a defining moment for a film that depicts male bonding at such a complex level that draws you quickly into their joys, struggles and tragedies. Rarely do such stories of friendship get you so emotionally invested.
Based on Chetan Bhagat’s novel ‘The 3 Mistakes of My Life’, Kai Po Che is set in Ahmedabad in the early 2000s, following Govind (Raj Kumar Yadav), a money-minded scrooge, Omi (Amit Sadh), the conflicted son of a Hindu priest, and Ishaan (Sushant Singh Rajput), the hot-tempered cricket aficionado. The three have been friends – brothers, really – since they were young. Or, as Ishaan’s sister Vidya (Amrita Puri) puts it, “since they were sperm.” Together, they pool their money, including a loan from Omi’s local politician-uncle, to set up a sports center in the middle of the temple compound.
They all share a certain naiveté about the world around them, not fully aware of the larger powers that will gradually test their friendship. The setting is, after all, Gujarat – a state that experienced a devastating earthquake in 2001 and bloody communal riots in 2002. As the three friends build their joint business, and even expand it to a shiny new mall, little do they know that their friendship is about to face its biggest test yet.
Kapoor and his team of writers flesh out each character so fully that you get to know them well enough to almost predict how they will react in certain situations. So when Ishaan zeroes in on his cricket protege Ali, who also happens to be the son of the local Muslim opposition leader, Omi gets uneasy knowing well how his uncle and his right wing Hindu party will react. Or when Govind takes the fiscally conservative stance to their business expansion, Omi and Ishaan know exactly how to talk him out of it.
There’s a lot of local context in Kai Po Che that might be missed by those not familiar with the sectarian tensions in Gujarat’s recent past. There’s a brilliantly subtle instance when the three friends are at Ali’s house and Omi quietly rejects a drink being offered to him.
Kapoor also handles the dramatic situations with an unexpected grace, saving many situations from falling into the usual melodramatic trap. Ishaan’s mentor relationship with Ali is particularly well developed, making for several heartwarming moments of a parental affection between them. Omi’s gradual involvement in his uncle’s right wing party is also subtly evolved, though not completely unexpected. And Govind’s romantic subplot seeps into the story with little fanfare, making it all the more tangible.
There are moments in Kai Po Che that remind you of Dil Chahta Hai, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, and 3 Idiots. Most similar is the narrative structure of opening in the present with only two of the three friends and then going into flashback to unravel the story. There’s also a scene about impulsively taking a dive into the sea, that echoed the moment in Rang De Basanti when the friends jumped into a reservoir as an expression of freedom. But these references don’t hinder the story too much.
Kapoor stays clear of making his film glossy like the others. Anay Goswamy’s cinematography lends the film a very grounded look, which goes hand-in-hand with the down to earth characters. It all feels real, and that’s what makes the film so relatable.
The narrative drags a little in the second half, where scenes asserting their male bonding feel repetitive. Kapoor also lingers a bit much on the larger picture of local politics, when the rest of the film is so carefully built around how external events affect the friends personally. The scenes showing the opposing political parties and leaders face off seem unnecessary, when the same point is being made by the controversy surrounding Ali being part of the sports center.
The film only has three songs in its soundtrack, composed by Amit Trivedi, but Kapoor uses each track so effectively to propel the story and emotions further. However, it’s the background score by Hitesh Sonik that deserves special mention. Every moment of the film is backed up by a score that fits effortlessly with the mood and performances.
The three leads – Raj Kumar Yadav, Amit Sadh and Sushant Singh Rajput – deliver stellar performances. They embody their characters so fully that at times you forget they are acting. No star could have done similar justice to these characters. Amrita Puri, in a supporting role, is adorable and delivers some crackling lines. The rest of the supporting cast also fits each role perfectly. Not a single actor seems out of place, which is testament to how the right casting can do wonders to any script.
Kai Po Che is the story of brotherly love turned volatile, in a time and place that changes each of the three friends forever. Kapoor weaves in cricket, business and religion into a brilliantly crafted story about friendship, love, and loss.
It’s a delightful example of cinema that is immersive, relevant, and provides drama and catharsis in just the right amounts. Go see it.