Film Review: Kai Po Che

Three friends fight for careers in a rapidly changing India in this smart adaptation of a best-selling novel.

Adapted from Chetan Bhagat's popular novel The 3 Mistakes of My Life, Kai Po Che moves beyond Bollywood stereotypes to a new style of Indian cinema. A coming-of-age drama that follows three friends over a ten-year span, the film has a depth and maturity that could attract an audience outside India. Kai Po Che screened in the Panorama section of this month's Berlin Film Festival.

The bulk of the story takes place in the city of Ahmedabad, where three friends join forces to form a small sporting goods store. The hotheaded Ishaan (Sushant Singh Rajput) is a local cricket star with a limited future in sports. Govind (Raj Kumar Yadav), shy and retiring, is the brains of the group. Omi (Amit Sadh) looks up to Ishaan. With an uncle in politics, he is also the only one of the three with the promise of a steady job.

Ishaan sets up a cricket school behind the store, focusing his attention on Ali (Digvijay Deshmukh), a child prodigy who is more interested in playing marbles than practicing. Ali is also a Muslim, a problem when Omi becomes more involved in Hindu politics.

Govind puts his friendship at risk when he falls for Ishaan's sister Vidya (Amrita Puri), a free spirit who can't quite break from tradition. Their secret affair worries Govind, who needs Ishaan's help with their growing Sabarmati Sports Club.

A catastrophic earthquake in 2001 swallows up the friends' profits. A terrorist attack the following year claims the lives of Omi's parents, and leads to riots between Hindus and Muslims. In a taut and cleverly choreographed climax, the friends reach a breaking point that forces each to confront his loyalties and beliefs.

Director Abhishek Kapoor, who also worked on the screenplay with novelist Bhagat, has an impressive grasp of the material. He grounds large-scale scenes like the earthquake and riots by focusing on his characters rather than special effects. He's equally adept at capturing the intimacy between Ishaan and Ali, or between Govind and Vidya. And while making good use of universal themes like ambition and betrayal, his film paints a fascinating portrait of an India on the brink of the future, and yet still divided by wealth and poverty, by class and religion.

But Kapoor at times seemed hemmed in by a story that keeps hitting predictable beats instead of breaking into new territory. The three-way dynamic heightens the drama in a lot of the scenes, as two friends pair off against the third. But the conflicts can feel schematic at times, and the script often settles for easy answers.

All four leads give strong performances. Rajput isn't afraid to play up Ishaan's flaws, and finds a convincing balance between insecure and cocky. Sadh's role as Omi is more one-note, but the actor pulls out the undercurrents in his part. Yadav and Puri make an engaging and entirely believable couple.

Kapoor and his colleagues get enough right in Kai Po Che that you wish they had taken more chances. The script may ultimately settle too much, but this is a film whose scope, detail and appealing characters deserve a wide audience.