It doesn’t take Rashmi Rocket 10 minutes to state its premise, state it again, and repeat it once more for the benefit of the dim minds that watch Hindi films. Akarsh Khurana's film begins with cops raiding a female athletes' hostel on an anonymous tip that a man is causing trouble there, and arresting Rashmi (Taapsee Pannu), evidently not a man. Then a flashback, where young Rashmi is given a choice between wearing a pant or a frock. Her mother says, “She’s a girl, she’ll wear a frock”—but Rashmi wears both. A few scenes and a time jump later, a man watching Rashmi pull up on a bike asks another, “Boy or girl?”
Girl, but just as importantly, Runner. The film establishes her ‘rocket’ credentials quickly, then darts back for an explanation as to why she stopped running. Rashmi is participating in a race at school—if you note the place (Bhuj) and the year (2001), you might be able to predict what happens next. Athletes in Hindi films, it seems, must have elevated traumas: Partition for Milkha Singh, 2001 Gujarat earthquake for Rashmi.
When a visiting army captain, Gagan (Priyanshu Painyuli), spots her talent and challenges her to put it to some use, she agrees to give running a proper go. She’s a natural, winning every race she enters (not for the first time, one wishes Hindi sports films didn’t treat losing like something that doesn’t happen to successful athletes). She wins at various state and inter-state athletic meets and joins the squad preparing for the Asian Games. Soon she’s breaking records at the camp. “Have you taken some steroids that don't show up?” a jealous teammate asks. “No girl has broken this record. Perhaps you're a guy?” The strange thing is, Pannu is built pretty much like the other girls. While Rashmi’s athletic ability might prompt the first question, there’s nothing about her appearance that warrants the latter, beyond the film's constant need to foreshadow.
It's only once Rashmi wins an individual gold at the Asian games and powers the team to a relay win that things unravel. After the race, she’s taken to a medical facility and made to undergo a blood test and an ultrasound. Her testosterone levels are found to be unusually high for a woman. The atheletics association, citing international policy, promptly bans her from racing and takes back her medals. After some encouragement from her mother and Gagan, she decides to take the federation to court with the help of Eeshit (Abhishek Banerjee), a young lawyer eager to take up the issue of 'gender testing' in sports.
Dutee Chand, the current 100m national champion, was dropped from the 2014 Commonwealth Games contingent on the grounds that her hyperandrogenism gave her an unfair advantage. She challenged the decision in the Court of Arbitration for Sport, and won. Rashmi Rocket (screenplay by Aniruddha Guha, dialogue by Kanika Dhillon) may not be a biopic but it definitely takes Chand as a primary model. Eeshit’s argument is that a gender test is just a measure of testosterone, not a determinant of whether Rashmi is man or woman. The film later provides proof (in a manner of speaking) that Rashmi is a woman, while at the same time acknowledging that this shouldn’t apply to all women. This strikes me as rather convenient: the heroine conforms to a widely held idea of womanhood, and the film collects woke points.
Rashmi Rocket finds some humour and pace once the trial begins. My favourite moment was Eeshit thundering his way through an opening argument, only for the judge to ask him if he watches a lot of Hindi movies. “In reality, courts don’t have such high drama,” she tells him. Banerjee, the killer in Pataal Lok and the comic foil in Stree and Bala, is excellent as the driven lawyer; Painyuli is also very watchable as Rashmi’s stoic, supportive partner. Pannu is rather subdued, and you have to look past her being in brownface in a film that's arguing against stereotypes.
For a sports film, there's a crippling lack of visual excitement. The races, the training montages are flat, done no favours by Amit Trivedi’s nondescript music. When Rashmi makes up a huge amount of ground in the 400m relay at the Asian Games, the film cheats by showing the start of her run, then skipping to the part where she’s abreast with the others. I liked the scene with hurdles placed at various heights in front of the starting blocks during training to teach Rashmi to have her head down when she takes off. But details like this that draw us into the sport are largely missing.
Populist filmmaking tropes may look so simple onscreen but they are a puzzle to most directors today because the tenor of Hindi cinema has changed significantly in the last decade. Whenever Khurana tries a big dramatic gesture—a dance number, a landmine, an earthquake—it ends up looking silly. The smaller moments work better, like Eeshit’s repertoire of pauses and fidgets, or Rashmi saying “Something is off inside me”. Seen purely as an indictment of the biased and humiliating practice of gender testing in sports, Rashmi Rocket has some value. But in cinema, as in sports, good intentions only go so far.
Rashmi Rocket is streaming on Zee5.