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
Drifter Boy falls for Cool Girl (“daru pilayega?”). Cool Girl shames Drifter Boy for being a chauvinist and a loser. Manly Rival enters the picture and threatens to steal “naukri, chhokri and izzat” (co-written by Luv Ranjan). Naturally, Loser Boy challenges Manly Rival to a competition to preserve his sports-coaching naukri (job), fickle chhokri (girl) and Haryanvi izzat (honour). They must coach two teams to compete in a trio of contests: basketball, 400m race, kabaddi. Drifter Boy finds purpose. Purpose Boy chooses a team of nerdy misfits and girls. Cool Girl inspires him by showing him how she teaches differently abled children (?) in her spare time. Nerds, girls, differently abled kids – all the same. Irony dies, but Purpose Boy uses fear (dog-barking is blared on loudspeakers to frighten a misfit into sprinting hard) and blackmail (Cool Girl threatens school-kids’ parents with legal consequences if they don’t allow participation) to become a hero. In a monologue, Purpose Boy takes a deep breath and names 23 Indian athletes (I counted) – male and female – to highlight the role of sports in academics-obsessed India. Manly Rival melts. Cool Girl coos.
The makers of Chhalaang would like to believe that Hindi cinema has come a long way since presenting village girl Ganga as the trophy for an all-male Kabaddi game in Pardes (1997). A teen girl is the star of Chhalaang’s coed Kabaddi game. Never mind that coach Montu Hooda (Rajkummar Rao) is essentially pitting the kids against one another to battle alpha-male coach Singh (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub) for the opportunistic hand of Neelima (Nushrratt Bharuccha). Everything and nothing has changed. Chhalaang at heart is just another regressive Luv (Ranjan) Triangle that pretends to wear the khaki shorts of a Progressive Sports Drama. Nushrratt Bharuccha still has that sly, ball-busting grin happening, as if she were a scheming city girl manipulating the testosterone overdose for her own benefit. Even though she’s an enabler of good things, Neelima is still an unlikable character – vampishly using her proximity with Singh to trigger Montu into action. Old habits die hard. Hansal Mehta – the maker of the remarkable Scam 1992: The Harshad Mehta Story – is credited as director of Chhalaang. I’m all for versatility and left-of-field collaborations, but this complete mismatch of sensibilities feels second to only the sight of Cheteshwar Pujara playing the IPL.
Rajkummar Rao is introduced as an RSS-style moral policer preying on Valentine’s Day couples, and his transformation is about as organic as Christian Bale losing 140 pounds to play a streetlight. One of his “unorthodox” coaching methods features the ragtag team of kids kneading wet dough to make chapatis. An irritated boy asks why the girls are not the only ones training this way because it’s their future anyway – and is promptly slapped by a female teammate. “Got your answer?” the coach says. I almost expected him to break the fourth wall and wink at us. The scene’s lack of nuance is typical of the modern social-message entertainer. Most of these characters sound like they’re simply parachuted into a rural environment to shake things up – we don’t see them evolve or change with time, they are only “different” because a film is being made about them. For instance, Neelima’s change of heart for Montu is ridiculous – his conversion, from sexist Sanghi to liberal Winner, feels like the latest project of her MBA curriculum.
When we wonder how the lady principal (Ila Arun) can even consider a competition like this, the old Hindi teacher (Saurabh Shukla), who also plays the hero-ka-dost character, delivers a long speech about how he took a chance on her when they were younger. Or something of the sort. I’m not sure how, but this seems to be related to the film at hand. A film that begins with Montu’s father (Satish Kaushik) spending an entire scene explaining why “randwa” rather than widower is a suitable term for Shukla – a man abandoned by his wife.
The biggest irony of this 145-minute-long self-righteous orgy of miscalculated masculinity is the fact that the villain – Zeeshan Ayyub’s character, Singh – is actually the only decent human in the film. (Not counting the dogs who look perplexed to be used as motivators). He’s in fact a hero: an outsider who arrives in a small Haryanvi town to change the way it thinks about sports and toughen up its kids. It’s only for whiny Montu’s sake that he is presented as a ruthless Australia to Montu’s tender Team India. Speaking of which, the only real reminder of Chhalaang belonging to an era that isn’t the 1990s is the first in-movie mention of Jasprit Bumrah – not Kohli, not Sachin – as an aspirational symbol of Indian cricket. (Rahul Dravid’s batting is used as a sexual innuendo in the other Hindi release this week, Ludo). The Bumrah remark is just a passing one, but a nice little ode to the fact that the rest of the film advances down the (sociocultural) crease only to keep yorking itself. In an alternate universe, someone just slapped that same kid again for making a crude Leg-Before-Wicket pun on his female teammate.