Diwali films, for me, are about an intimate yet shared experience that you may not always crave at other times during the year but cannot live without on Diwali. These films become a source of entertainment not necessarily because they represent 'good' cinema, but because of the aura they create when you watch them with your loved ones, the fun discussions that take place about the scenes, songs, or dialogues – however good, bad, silly or weird they may be – and on rare occasions, the sweet nostalgia that they evoke in you. I vividly remember how in 2001, my parents had rented Lagaan so we could all watch it on a rather rickety VCR (also rented) after our Diwali Pooja. Although that was not a Diwali release, it is my earliest memory of a film I watched on Diwali. I was all of nine back then and still could feel the thrills of the many amazing moments that Ashutosh Gowariker managed to weave in that film. But the main reason that this memory is still so fresh for me is not the film itself but the experience that we, as a family, built around it – the hours it took to set up the VCR, the fun I had with my brother and cousins, and all the homemade Diwali sweets and snacks that we savoured while watching the film. Cut to Diwali day ten years later and I find myself watching the matinee show of Ra.One (2011) with my college friends while sitting in the first row of a bustling theatre in Kanpur. Subsequent Diwalis saw us watching two other Shahrukh Khan films – Jab Tak Hai Jaan (2012) and Happy New Year (2014). Unfortunately, none of these newer films was a great Diwali 'watchable' for me – friends left the theatre out of boredom in one, the release seemed poorly timed for another, and I fell asleep in the third.
Reflecting on this mixed bag of Diwali film-watching experiences, here is what I have realized about what I need in a Diwali movie – it must be a family entertainer that can be enjoyed in a private, sit-at-home affair; everyone watching the film with me – whether family or friends – should enjoy it because if even one person does not find the film likeable, it ruins the experience for everyone; it should be long – the longer the better because that means we are all bound together in a shared experience for that much longer; it should not make me or any of my 'co-watchers' cry at any point unless it is out of laughter; and it should be a film that can be discussed, not debated. Forgettable enough to not be a topic of discussion hours after it has ended but engaging enough to keep the viewers glued to the screen throughout its run time.
Amazon Prime Video's Diwali offering this year – Chhalaang – may not check all the boxes in my list, but it fits the bill pretty well. A rom-com set against the backdrop of school sports, this film is a through-and-through entertainer. Romance is a timeless genre, and there can never be enough good comedy. But the reason I discuss this film here is not because I liked it (which I did), but because my parents loved it so much more. Chhalaang managed to drag me and my parents into its world right at the opening credits with the nostalgia that they evoked – animated cartoon sketches of the film's characters, relevant frames, and sports paraphernalia, very reminiscent of the opening credits of many classic Kishore Kumar comedies like Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi (1958), Half Ticket (1962) or Padosan (1968) that we as a family have watched and re-watched dozens of times. To add to this, the film's school setting immediately made us quite comfortable and even 'safe' in the way schools are supposed to. Most of the action takes place in this school building which left us all with major throwbacks to our own school days. What better way to initiate a discussion than to allow the viewers to reminisce about their good old times? It was even better that the film achieved this transportation for us in such simple ways as the handheld school bell or the awkward "May I come in, madam?".
As the uninterested-then-caring PT instructor Montu, Rajkummar Rao, like in most of his other films, is a joy to watch. Nushrratt Bharuccha, who has some powerful dialogues in the film, does a nice job in her limited screen time, as does Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub. Plus, Chhalaang's delightful assortment of supporting characters – such as the supportive dad (Satish Kaushik), the nostalgic mother (Baljinder Kaur), the smug brother (Naman Jain), the ever-present teacher-turned-friend (Saurabh Shukla), the likeable school principal (Ila Arun) – elevates the film-watching experience tremendously. And even though I am now thinking about its flaws after having watched it, Chhalaang does not let you dwell much on whether an actor managed to get the accent right, or if Bharuccha's expressions in some scenes were too much like her character Sweety from Sonu Ke Titu Ki Sweety (2018).
The film does seem a bit preachy at times, but not to the detriment of the watching experience. In any case, I do not consider this film a champion of female empowerment or gender equality, or an insight into the abilities of the differently abled, because honestly the attention afforded to these aspects is too little to make a major impact on anyone. But I also do not think the filmmakers intended these short messages to be anything more than a wobbly ropeway to take the audience across a simple, known but still acceptable and enjoyable storyline.
Some might also find Chhalaang a bit underwhelming as a sports film, but in many important ways, it is like any other film in the genre – you find a team to root for, cheer them on, and feel genuinely elated when your team wins. It is like when you know someone is going to throw you a surprise party, but you end up feeling surprised anyway. It was especially fun for me to watch my parents yell gleefully whenever Montu's team won or scored. Still, as far as Hindi sports films go, Chhalaang is no Dangal or Panga. What it is, though, is a feel-good film that brings out the memories of your school days irrespective of your age and does not let you hit the pause button even though you know exactly how the film is going to end. Ultimately, this is what makes Chhalaang a thoroughly enjoyable Diwali film to watch with your family.