Director: Abhishek Kapoor
Writers: Abhishek Kapoor, Tushar Paranjpe, Supratik Sen
Cast: Ayushmann Khurrana, Vaani Kapoor, Kanwaljit Singh, Gourav Sharma, Gautam Sharma
Cinematographer: Manoj Lobo
Editor: Chandan Arora
In Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui, director Abhishek Kapoor attempts a perilous tightrope act. He takes a complex subject that many viewers would either be ignorant of or uncomfortable with and then attempts to parcel it as a broad-based mainstream Hindi movie with stars, songs, glamour, comedy, dysfunctional families and emotional drama. The result is a film that is successful in some ways and faltering in others. Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui is both – a necessary and laudable conversation starter but also an airbrushed and simplistic view of the struggle of a transwoman to find love and acceptance.
The film falls into the emerging sub-genre of Hindi films that aim to make viewers reconsider their perspectives on tricky topics such as sexual orientation and gender. The messaging is made palatable by the packaging. It's the Trojan horse maneuver – disguising a subversive idea with comforting, commercial tropes. Think of films like Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan, also starring Ayushmann Khurrana, which celebrated the love story of two men or Ek Ladki Ko Dekha To Aisa Laga, starring Sonam Kapoor, which did the same for women. Full disclosure: Ek Ladki was directed by my sister-in-law Shelly Chopra Dhar.
Ayushmann, who has already led the charge on sperm donation, erectile dysfunction, middle-age pregnancy and hair loss, is once again our guide into uncharted waters. In Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui, he plays Manu Munjal, the local gym rat whose life is defined by protein shakes, keto diets and weights. What Manu wants more than anything is to beat his rival Sandy in competitions that measure brute strength, including one in which they pull jeeps with their bodies. When we first see Manu, he is bare chested, doing a punishing routine. The gym, where he pretty much lives and which he runs with the twin brothers Riz and Jomo, is called Jatts Flex It. Manu is masculinity at its most basic – grunting and heaving.
But Manu's idea of what makes a man comes crashing down when he falls in love with the new Zumba instructor Maanvi. Maanvi always looks like she has stepped out of the pages of Vogue magazine – she even comes to the gym in heels. Soon the two are having torrid, passionate sex. But then Maanvi tells Manu about her past and all hell breaks loose.
Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui is based on a story idea by Simran Sahni, who is the mother of trans daughters. The screenplay and dialogues, which have been written by Supratik Sen and Tushar Paranjape, juggles between Manu attempting to rethink his own notions of gender and Maanvi's struggle to forge a life for herself in a world that refuses to accept who she is. The best scenes in the film are the confrontations between Manu and Maanvi. The tenderness and empathy force Manu, and through him the audience, to reconsider their stance. In one scene, Maanvi tells Manu that she has already been through so much that she isn't afraid of anything anymore. Vaani Kapoor enacts it with just the right mix of hurt, vulnerability and spine. This is her strongest performance since her debut, Shuddh Desi Romance, in 2013.
But the ache of the emotion in this scene and in others is undermined by the excessive polish baked into her persona. There is too much emphasis on her physicality – at one point, the camera lingers on her rear end and even in the hospital scenes, her hair is perfectly blow dried. The film is also besotted with Ayushmann's new body – the actor, who excels as the boy-next-door, is ripped like Mr. Universe here and Abhishek takes every chance he can to showcase the transformation. Which doesn't leave as much room for performance but in the few scenes he has to articulate the confusion of this man, Ayushmann does it with aplomb.
Abhishek, Supratik and Tushar address the bias that marginalized communities face as a matter of routine but the world of Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui never gets too dark. There is little of the brutality and ugliness that we've seen in Western films on the same subject like Boys Don't Cry or The Crying Game. Or closer to home, the 2017 Bengali film Nagarkirtan, in which Riddhi Sen gave a National Award-winning performance as a transwoman.
In this film, problems are resolved a tad too easily. Even long-simmering resentments are fixed by convenient plot twists. The writing is clumsy and the plot tries to do too much – the film wants to make a larger plea for inclusion so one of the characters is a lesbian and there's also a Hindu-Muslim romance. But it's written generically and comes off as lip service.
Despite the title, Abhishek doesn't portray Chandigarh with any specificity. The Punjabis in the film are the usual cliched eating, drinking, dancing, fighting, loud folk. Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui also has scenes that can be triggering – including the repeated use of the slur 'chakka'. And the film addresses the actual reassignment at a superficial level. We have little sense of what Maanvi has endured. We see her popping pills but that's about it. And though members of the trans community worked as advisors on the film, there is no getting away from the fact that a transgender character is being played by a cis-gender woman and that the film's core team is mostly male.
But for all its flaws, I'm glad that Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui exists. A 2021 study by the Pew Research Centre reported that 42 percent of Americans say that they personally know someone who is transgender. The figure for India is probably a lot less. Which means that most people are learning about transgender people through the media. Over the decades, Hindi cinema has positioned the community as a source of fun or fear. Remember the vicious Maharani from Sadak? That was 30 years ago. It has taken us this long to get to an empathetic portrayal. I hope more will follow.
You can watch Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui at a theatre near you. Don't forget to wear a mask.