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'Rashmi Rocket' is a not-so-agile film about a hyperandrogenic athlete who dared to change sports

The predictable storytelling isn’t as much the problem as the tone of the material in 'Rashmi Rocket'.

October 16, 2021 / 09:31 PM IST
Taapsee Pannu's physical transformation for her role in 'Rashmi Rocket' is remarkable.

Taapsee Pannu's physical transformation for her role in 'Rashmi Rocket' is remarkable.

While watching actor Taapsee Pannu breeze through track-and-field feats in her eponymous role as an athlete in Akarsh Khurana’s Rashmi Rocket (streaming on Zee5), I couldn’t shake off thoughts about Dutee Chand—and how Rashmi’s story was the simpler, cardboard, more anodyne version of the singularly messy and complicated story of Dutee.

Dutee changed sports forever for the world. In 2014, when she was found to have a condition called hyperandrogenism—her body produces a larger amount of the androgen hormone testosterone than the average woman—she was barred from competing because the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the governing body for world athletics, had introduced a rule in 2011 which states that women who naturally produce testosterone at levels usually seen in men will be ineligible to compete as  women. Athletes who had hyperandrogenism had two options: Quit sports, or undergo a medical intervention involving surgery and long-term hormone-replacement therapy to lower androgen levels. Chand took the third option. She decided to challenge the ruling at the the Court of Arbitration of Sports (CAS) in Lausanne, Switzerland, and with the help of an international team of experts, got a ruling in 2015 that lifted this ban.

This is a bioethical issue that remains the most abiding debate on gender and sports the world over. Dutee’s victory and her subsequent wins at several international contests thereafter as well as her coming out as gay make hers such a fascinating trajectory as an athletic outlier and a visionary, that a story that is even partly similar to hers ought to have dramatic potential that beats the typical underdog story by a hefty margin.

Khurana’s film, however, shapes a story seemingly inspired by Dutee Chand’s journey with the bland cookie-cutter mould too often seen in the biopic genre. But the predictable storytelling isn’t as much the problem as the tone of the material. Writers Nanda Periyasamy (story), Aniruddha Guha (screenplay) and Kanika Dhillon (additional screenplay) almost coddles and cossets viewers, never once hitting us with the full brunt of the horrors women athletes have had to undergo because of this discriminatory rule. The makers of Rashmi Rocket are clear about their focus: To move inexorably to the sigh-inducing uplift at the end when Rashmi has a cathartic winning moment. The film is addled with the belief that undiluted moments of true discomfort or complexity would destroy rather than amplify the uplifting moments—a true defender of the feel-good, monotone arc of a majority of sports films.

rashmi rocket reviewThe story of Rashmi Rocket ticks all the right boxes—without a smidgeon of irreverence or surprise. Rashmi (Taapsee Pannu) runs at unbelievable speed since childhood, when she loses her father—a man sympathetic to and encouraging of her tomboy traits—to the Bhuj earthquake. Her fleet and agility continue to improve but she decides to give up competing in sprinting events after the trauma of losing her father during a race. While working as a tour guide to a troop of army men in her hometown, an army officer Gagan Thakur (Priyanshu Painyuli) notices her unusual speed and convinces her and her mother Bhanuben (Supriya Pathak), a strong-willed community mobiliser to join competitive athletics. Rashmi nails every important race in the country. After serial wins at an international event, the national sports establishment unfairly grounds her with a summon to be medically tested. She fails the hyperandrogenism test because she has minimally higher testosterone levels than the average woman. Will Rashmi quit, how long will she quit for, and will she win a hard battle?

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The nature of this battle is ought to be gruelling in every possible way, especially psychologically. After all, the most basic primers of Rashmi’s identity is being challenged. The screenplay is unfortunately not much invested in telling us who Rashmi really is—and how the blow to her peak athletic prowess breaks her or shifts her. Rashmi Rocket is too preoccupied being the way every sports film with an underdog should pan out, how every plot point should take us further to the cathartic, all’s-well-that-ends-well climactic moment. The plotting tropes are too convenient, and every argument against the hyperandrogenism rule—the point of view of the screenplay is abundantly clear—plays out tediously in a courtroom.

Pannu is effective as a cynical, stolid, no-frills personality suited to sports. Her physical transformation for the role is remarkable, and is a natural at the tracks, but overall, it is a one-dimensional performance rife with expressions and a vibe that we have seen before in her other roles—the writing ensures she isn’t required to channel a character in an entirely original way. Even so, Pannu elevates the limiting material. There are staple characters, including the three other main characters: Pathak as Rashmi’s mother has no surprises or gravitas or a signature quality; Thakur as the ancillary male force in Rashmi’s life as her partner is competent, but again, like all the other characters, without any singularity; Abhishek Banerjee as Rashmi’s lawyer Eeshit is lukewarm as a lawyer with an activist zeal compared to his other recent roles. Humour is in short supply throughout the film, and as such, every cliche weighs heavy.

One of the rare things in a sports film is the way the sports arena and human movements intrinsic to playing a particular sport is visualised. Cinematographer Neha Parti Matiyani works largely with a staid template of long shots and busy frames. No real love is visible in the frames or movements for athletics, for the arena and for the human body’s ability to transcend limitations of speed, strength and mental alacrity. The choice of setting is interesting: Bhuj, Gujarat. Gujarat isn’t known for producing athletes, but given the chalky, achromatic expanse of Kutch topographies, the choice of setting perhaps makes eminent cinematic sense to steamroll a visually thrilling film. But the film lacks visual daring or visual eloquence entirely.

The music by Amit Trivedi sounds all too familiar even with the Kutchi accents and notes.

When it was over, I asked myself for the sake of this review, who Rashmi really is besides being a tomboy who grows up to be a strong, defiant, angry woman in the middle of a pathbreaking storm—and I didn’t have much else. But if you do cheer her before the end credits roll, I won’t begrudge you. It is after all a film about a monumental victory of human rights, no matter how routine the unravelling of Rashmi’s journey to the victory feels.
Sanjukta Sharma is a freelance writer and journalist based in Mumbai.

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