Almost a decade before Chak De India became the phenomenon that it continues to be in the minds of film and sports buffs, there was another movie starring the late Irrfan Khan which represented the quintessential underdog story with great nuance. Released in 1999, The Goal was one of the first solo leads that a then struggling Irrfan managed to make his own, much like he did with every other character that he played in his exceptional career. However, the film never really made the headlines at the time despite receiving a lot of appreciation in national and international film circles.
The movie had the legendary actor playing Anupam Singh, a football coach who was once a celebrated player but had to cut his career short due to injuries. Anupam happens to accept an old friend’s request to coach Eleven Bullets, a team of young but lazy and laid-back kids who are to compete in the Challenge Trophy against their arch rivals, Benu Bina. The other protagonist in the movie is Manu (played by Tapas Dhali), a young player who comes from a poor family but is eager to play football in order to banish the demons of his otherwise ordinary life.
The movie narrates the story of how Anupam spots Manu and helps him realize his potential despite others in the team opposing his selection due to his lower caste and also because his father was an alleged thief. Irrfan’s performance as a strict but empathetic coach is one to remember as he goes about breaking caste-based barriers in the minds of the privileged kids in his team. With an ending that is quite unique when compared to other sports movies in India, The Goal is a children’s film that delivers a poignant message simply but effectively.
The film went on to win a number of accolades. It was recognized as the Best Children’s Film at the 47th National Film Awards in 2000 before a Special International Jury Prize at the 11th Cairo International Film Festival came calling. Although it was critically acclaimed and received rave reviews for its performances, direction and cinematography, the movie never really took off in a way others in the same genre have since then. However, for fans of Irrfan, it lingers on as one of his most heartwarming performances ever. The only negative being that one might end up shedding a tear or two every time the late actor delivers his lines in the most Irrfan-esque manner possible, with that effervescent energy and effortless brilliance.