In the game of carrom, an indoor game much beloved across the Indian subcontinent, a “striker” is the piece a player uses to manipulate the rest of the “men” on the board. In writer-director Chandan Arora’s (Main Madhuri Dixit Banna Chahti Hoon; Main, Meri Patni… Aur Woh) film, the striker is our largely stoic narrator who makes an unlikely hero.
Striker opens in 1992 in a (pre-renaming) Bombay on the cusp of communal riots. A young man is trying to get home under curfew conditions, hitching a ride where possible, getting snagged by the police where it’s not. His name is Suryakant, Surya (Siddharth) for short, and his home is in Malvani, a poor neighborhood with a mixed population that’s mostly Muslim – the police fear it might well go up in flames ere dawn breaks.
He manages to slip away from the well-meaning police officer Farooque (Anupam Kher) who cautions him to stay out of Malvani for the night and almost makes it home, dodging groups of malcontents on the way, before a chance remark by a passing acquaintance sends him running. He’s been playing against fate all his life, and everytime he thinks he’s got it cornered, it delivers a coup de grace. Today is no different.
The bulk of the movie is told via flashback – a young Surya coming of age in a city that is about as foreign to him as it would be for someone from outside it; the strange world of competitive carrom playing in scenes reminiscent of mahjong films; the intricacies of relationships in the close confines of Bombay’s chawls; the constant struggle to be a winner at least once in his life – and the price he must pay for that vain dream.
There are three people integral to his story and one who leaves you all at sea:
The first is Zaid (Ankur Vikal), his best friend. A junkie to the core, if there’s anything Zaid is capable of loving, it is Surya: the kid with whom he imagined owning Bombay in the days of long ago. A liar, a cheat, a hustler and, worst of all, bad at all three, Zaid is the guy who not only gets into trouble but gets Surya into it as well. It pisses him off and he’s not slow to give Zaid the back of his hand for it, but Zaid is still a part of Surya. It’s true love. The kind that doesn’t pack up in the middle of the night and vanish when found out, the way Surya’s first crush, the burqa-clad Noorie (Nicolette Bird), does. No, it’s love of the kind that could get you butchered in the middle of the street. The first time you see Surya spiraling out of control is for Zaid.
The second is Jaleel (Aditya Panscholi), the small-time gangster who taught his brother Chandra (Anoop Soni) a valuable lesson about betting beyond your means and paying your debts. By the time Surya bumps into him through the ‘helpful’ hand of Zaid, Jaleel is no longer playing for penny ante stakes in local carrom halls; he’s laying out a “casino” instead and wants Surya, a junior level champion, to come play for him. Surya isn’t keen – Jaleel’s the real player in Malvani and it’s not always beneficial to become his striker – but the stakes keep getting bigger and bigger and he can’t help but think that maybe this really is his turn to win.
The third pivotal character in Surya’s life is his sister Devi (Vidya Malvade). Brought up in a kholi where they shared a room all their life, Devi is the sister who henpecks him, berates him in public, cries when she can’t have him attend her wedding because she fears for his safety, teases him when she finds out he’s fallen for the girl across the street, and even gets him married. She is his confidante, his better half, the beautiful sister who did everything right including an education and a good marriage. Even the thought of her loss is too much for him to take.
In the middle of all this, Striker does a marvelous job of creating context. The crowded spaces of Malvani with the houses looking into each other and the lanes too narrow to allow more than a pushcart through create a perfect compare and contrast scenario for the 1992 sections of the movie which feature an unsettlingly deserted cityscape that seems to be holding its collective breath behind shuttered shop windows and tightly barred doors. The mysterious Bombay that Zaid and Surya spy through a haze of smog from their vantage point on top of an abandoned building is a sprawling area that looks deceptively peaceful when compared to the hustle and bustle of their own neighborhood. But on the ground, it teems with the same tensions, hundreds of Malvanis all packed together.
The championship games that Surya wins to applause from his family are held in vaguely dusty, bureaucratic-looking spaces that appear to be the gathering ground of Dorks R Us. In sharp contrast, the betting games that energize the local underworld are held in dingy, cramped spaces where the games come closest to revealing their tactical nature; thinly veiled metaphors of the uncertain urban warfare that occupies the attention of most of these men. You get the attraction even if the games themselves are not exactly keeping you on the edge of your seat. Maybe real carrom fanatics fare better on that front?
Not that it matters because the climax is thrown seriously out of whack by one scene – in which Surya manhandles Madhu (Padmapriya), his landlady/toddyshop owner, onto a table and rapes her.
Contextually, Madhu’s is not an arc that makes or breaks the film. But in terms of content, it’s such a weird little scene, you don’t know what to make of it. Madhu is clearly attracted in some way to Surya – had he been one of her other regulars, like Zaid for example with his junkie teeth, I sincerely doubt she would ever have rescued him from his night amongst the fishing boats or found his subsequent blackout funny. One of the things Surya has going for him is that he’s cute. Or at least cuter than most of the people he hangs out with (I forgive him the baby mullet because this is supposed to be the 80s).
As Madhu struggles with Surya, her face changes from anger to shock to what looks like resignation. She’s a young woman who caters to drunks in an unsavory part of Bombay – you have to wonder if this is the first time she’s ever been assaulted. It could just be bad acting on the actor’s part, but there’s definitely something more to this scene than one man raping a woman because he feels his life spinning out of control.
When it’s over, for example, all she has to say to an ashamed Surya is that he knows what he did was wrong and they’re going to put it behind them. There is so much subtext to what she says that you wish it came with a manual of some kind. Is she really that phlegmatic? Is the movie saying something about the 80s or about the neighborhood or about Madhu and Surya?
You have to wonder if this was an attempt at one of those 80s-style rapetastic sex scenes – from Hollywood movies to Mills&Boon novels, there was a definite trend in the 80s for The Forceful Man and the Woman Who Loves Him Helplessly. And Surya is definitely the kind of guy who gets his dating advice from Bollywood potboilers.
The reason why this really rankles in your mind is because Surya eventually ends up marrying Madhu. Which is a mindfuck of a whole another sort. It’s pretty clear that he likes strong women – Devi is one and his mother is played by Seema Biswas, which is code for such in Indian cinema by now – and he doesn’t seem to be marrying her in a fit of repentance or something. Definitely, Madhu’s expression as she marries him doesn’t reflect the face of a woman promising her life over to her rapist.
Maybe the whole thing was an exercise in Shit is Complicated. Which works for me. This is a movie that could easily leave you frustrated because of the jealous way it tends to guard nuggets of information as the story unspools. I’d have been a lot more creeped out if the context remained ambiguous while the rape itself was titillating. If it was meant to be a homage to the 80s, I’m glad Arora didn’t take it that far.
*** Spoiler End***
The performances, almost uniformly good (they’re puzzling/not-good rather than outright bad when not), are what really tie Striker together. Siddharth is almost shockingly good, as is Ankur Vikal. The two of them carry the bulk of this movie and do it better than any duo in similar circumstances since Chakravarti and Manoj Bajpai in Satya – except one of them isn’t nearly catatonic and the other isn’t spitting out bits of scenery. Aditya Panscholi actually made a difference to a movie after a very long time. And Vidya Malvade was a complete natural.
A movie about the deep, dark underbelly of carrom games seems like a far-fetched idea, but it’s one of the more interesting movies I’ve seen of late. And Chandan Arora is the man responsible for it.