Director: Hansal Mehta
Writers: Aseem Arrora, Zeishan Quadri, Luv Ranjan
Cast: Rajkummar Rao, Nushrratt Bharucha, Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub
Cinematographer: Eeshit Narain
Editors: Akiv Ali, Chetan Solanki
Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video
Hansal Mehta and Rajkummar Rao constitute one of Hindi cinema’s most potent artistic collaborations. Their films – Shahid, for which Rajkummar won a National Award, City Lights, Aligarh, Omerta – are blistering, probing portraits of the state of our world. In Chhalaang, Hansal and Rajkummar attempt something more mainstream. They tell the uplifting story of a PT teacher in small-town Haryana, who finds his purpose in life through coaching the weakest kids in the school into a winning team. I suspect this conventional narrative went against their DNA. Chhalaang isn’t tear-your-hair-out awful. It’s just ordinary.
Hansal, working from a story written by Luv Ranjan, Aseem Arrora and Zeishan Quadri, recreates the familiar beats of small town movies – lovable, eccentric characters, a thick local accent, the halwai ki dukan, the aangan wala ghar and the inherently comedic contrasts of this world – the school kids have Temple Run on their phones but practice dribbling using cow dung patties. Sticking to the formula, Hansal also bungs in a smart, spunky heroine – Nushrratt Bharuccha plays Neelima, a school teacher who knocks back drinks and imparts life lessons with equal enthusiasm.
And we know that alcohol is the designated symbol of independent and, pardon the pun, spirited women in Bollywood. As soon as a woman asks for daru, you know she’s formidable. Nushrratt makes a valiant attempt at fitting into the unglamorous environment, with an accent firmly in place. But her manicured nails and four-inch heels undermine her authenticity.
Rajkummar, as usual, brings absolute commitment to the role of Montu, a lethargic PT teacher. Montu has little drive. He studied in the same school and then happily returned after his father pulled strings with the principal to get him the job. Montu doesn’t care about teaching sport. In fact, he doesn’t show any ambition until Neelima enters his life. She makes him want to be a better man. So does his competitor in love and job, Coach Singh, played by Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub. Their rivalry plays out in a contest in which Montu’s fledgling, faltering team goes up against Coach Singh’s superior one.
There are flashes when you see what this film could have been – a conversation between the two brothers in which Bablu is chatting with Montu about being in love has texture and humour
Rajkummar embodies Montu’s laziness, his longing for Neelima and his foolish bravado. Watch him in a scene in which Montu talks about how he has always been a quitter. His voice is tinged with anguish and regret. The actor is terrific. But the script is so predictable that his performance takes a beating. We get the usual training montage, the climactic moment of despair in which it seems all is lost and then of course, the underdog victory. Only those who have never seen a sports film would consider that a spoiler.
The narrative sets up interesting hurdles but forgets them along the way – a conflict involving Montu’s brother Bablu is barely touched. Early in the film, we see that Montu is a member of a local Sanskriti dal. He harasses and bullies couples in a park but that is played for laughs and forgotten after a cursory apology. Jatin Sarna, who was so good as Bunty in Sacred Games, plays Montu’s friend Dimpy, the local halwai. He gets a few good lines but there isn’t enough of him. Or of Baljinder Kaur who is sparkling as Montu’s annoyed mother. The wonderful Saurabh Shukla plays Shukla ji, the ex-principal who helps Montu achieve his dreams. Saurabh fleshes out the character into much more.
There are flashes when you see what this film could have been – a conversation between the two brothers in which Bablu is chatting with Montu about being in love has texture and humour. As does an argument in which chuski and what kind of person likes which kind – kala khatta or orange – are passionately discussed. Or a chat that Shukla ji has with the school principal, played by Ila Arun, about why she should give Montu a chance – the rich emotion in the scene will touch your heart. But these moments get lost in the mountain of cliches.
Chhalaang isn’t big on logic either. In one scene, the school kids are put into a life-threatening situation so that they can learn to run faster. Even Rajkummar Rao can’t make that believable.
You can watch Chhalaang on Amazon Prime Video.