Breakaway premier at TIFF

Photograph of Breakaway premier at TIFF with Akshay Kumar, Rob Lowe, and Russell Peters

Elephant at Breakaway premier

At the Breakaway premier

Indo-Canadian film breaks barriers, but fails to build bridges

Breakaway is a new Canadian film about a young Sikh Canadian man (Vinay Virmani) who is a mad about hockey — against the wishes of his traditional, turban-wearing father (Anupam Kher). It’s set in suburban Toronto and features Russell Peters, Rob Lowe and a cameo by Akshay  Kumar. The film explores the meeting of Sikh/Punjabi/Indian and Canadian culture, and attempts to reconcile them against the backdrop of Canada’s national sport (and pseudo-religion) — hockey.

On Saturday, September 10, the film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) with a raucous Punjabi-themed parade on Yonge Street that included bhangra music and dance, a painted elephant, Miss India-Canada, the cast and crew in colourful autorickshaws and Bollywood star Akshay Kumar on a white horse. The waiting crowd loved it and camera lights were flashing. It was a great start to a fun, feel-good movie. However, the film didn’t quite live up to its promise.

At the premier

Inside the theatre, before the start of the film, producer Ajay Virmani — father of writer / star Vinay — introduced a series of grey-suited producers before calling on the big guns: Anupam Kher, Russell Peters, Rob Lowe and, finally, Akshay Kumar looking resplendent in a white sherwani and adding a serious dash of glamour to the occasion. In fact, Akki is far more handsome and elegant in real life than in pictures and I was impressed! Scroll down for a picture.

Photograph of Breakaway premier at TIFF with Akshay Kumar, Rob Lowe, and Russell Peters

Anupam Kher, Russell Peters, Vinay Virmani and Rob Lowe

The premier was basically a love-in for the cast, crew and supporters of Breakaway. The long introduction was a lot to make the audience wait through — though, to be fair several of the speeches were touching or warm  (i.e. Vinay, Anupam and Akshay) and Russell was predictably funny.

Breakaway is a family affair, made by a father-and-son team, and intended to launch Vinay Virmani’s career. Ajay threw everything he’s got behind it, including his connections with stars like Akshay and Russell. Thank goodness Vinay’s got talent. It’s easy to like him, and want him to succeed — on and off-screen; on the ice and off. He’s the heart of the film, and his warmth, passion and sweetness shine through an otherwise mediocre film with a somewhat awkward, predictable script and sometimes amateurish production values. Even Russell Peters falls flat and Akshay Kumar is wasted. Surprisingly, Rob Lowe is the only other standout as the reluctant coach who takes on the unlikely Speedy Singhs hockey team and helps make them into winners. His character seemed real to me, and I would have liked to know more about him.

Anupam Kher is one of my favourite Indian actors and though he doesn’t get the chance to exercise his considerable talents in Breakaway, he is always solid. I had the wonderful opportunity of interviewing him for about 30 minutes, and we had a great, in-depth conversation — about the importance of failing, the power of optimism and the unique opportunity we each have of being ourselves in this world. I will be posting a blog about the interview soon. He’s a very wise, thoughtful and caring person, who is willing to share of himself, so it will be a good read.

The three women in the film — Neera (Noureen DeWulf), the mother (Sakina Jaffrey) and the love interest Melissa (Camilla Belle) — are given somewhat predictable roles, but all three bring humour, warmth and character to the film.

Photograph of Breakaway premier at TIFF with Ajay Virmani, Noureen DeWulf, Sakina Jaffrey, Gurpreet Guggi Singh and Anupam Kher

Ajay Virmani, Noureen DeWulf, Sakina Jaffrey, Gurpreet Guggi Singh and Anupam Kher

Great expectations

I was eagerly anticipating Breakaway, and I brought a lot of goodwill to the screening, but in the end I was somewhat disappointed. Perhaps my expectations for this film were too high. As a Canadian-born-and-bred woman who is also part of a Punjabi family in India, and often has to straddle the cultural divide, I was eagerly anticipating a film about the clash of Canadian-Indian culture, and I was hoping for more insight and subtlety. I was hoping it would break new ground. I wanted Gandhi and instead got The Mighty Ducks. The filmmakers decided to use broad strokes and camp humour to make a feel-good film that celebrates difference and encourages “minorities” to feel pride in who they are. Sikhs, Punjabis, Indians and perhaps other “visible ethnic minorities” in Canada will probably love the film, and for good reason.

Photograph of Breakaway

The Speedy Singhs

However, I’m not sure white, mainstream Canada will like it. The white guys on the Hammerheads hockey team seem like cartoonish thugs to me — they are very one-dimensional. Perhaps there are people who are that openly racist, but I was hoping this film would not only cross the cultural divide, but bridge it. I’m not sure it succeeds at that level — which is too bad.

Vinay’s character wins the respect of his new cousin-in-law, the (white) girl, the championship, his father’s approval and the esteem of his community. But there is no arc in the storyline in the other direction; there is no resolution, reconciliation or redemption on the part of the racist, white hockey players. The communities don’t really come together, except when we see his love interest dressed up in Indian clothes for his cousin’s wedding. Though I think Breakaway is a step in the right direction, it seems like a lost opportunity to me.

Next time, perhaps, Vinay?

Akshay Kumar on stage at the TIFF premier of Breakaway

Akshay Kumar on stage at the TIFF premier of Breakaway

Bhangra musicians and dancers getting ready for the Breakaway premier parade

Bhangra musicians and dancers getting ready for the Breakaway premier parade

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