Director: Nitesh Tiwari
Cast: Sushant Singh Rajput, Shraddha Kapoor, Varun Sharma, Naveen Polishetty, Tahir Raj Bhasin, Tushar Pandey
Indian college movies are made as weapons of mass distraction. They are fluffy and unrealistic and funny and aspirational – flush with melodramatic tropes of heroism and all-or-nothing competitions – because real college life is anything but dramatic. The Mohabbateins and Student of the Years and 3 Idiots of the world are designed as easy escapes from the country's bleak academic culture. The darker the actual education system, the sillier the narrative tropes. These stories are simply told to make (student) life worth living. The '90s campus-movie portion of Chhichhore, too, is essentially a story told by a father to make his son's life worth living. The teenager, Raghav (Tummbad's Mohammad Samad), lies broken in a hospital bed after a failed suicide attempt.
The story, about the father's own college days, is fluffy and energetic and funny and aspirational – flush with tropes of underdog heroism and an all-or-nothing sports competition – because engineering life is anything but dramatic. The story is unrealistic and exaggerated. For instance, not one book or teacher is revealed. (Subtext: Life is our education). All we see are the ragtag occupants of a "losers" hostel trying to shed their tag by winning a two-month-long sports championship. But for once, this airy and inauthentic tone of a college movie – a very entertaining college movie – has a reason to belong. There is a lot at stake. Filmmakers usually assume their audiences to be (brain)dead and in need of resuscitation. Here, the listener is literally dying, and in need of psychological resuscitation.
Raghav had failed to clear the All-India entrance exams. He is afraid of being called a loser because his parents – Anirudh (Sushant Singh Rajput) and Maya (Shraddha Kapoor) – are ex-IITians (NITians, in this film's case). The doctor mentions that Raghav's body is not healing because the boy has no will to live. Anirudh, in a last-ditch attempt, decides to narrate a "based-on-true-events" tale that he hopes will evoke a message every pressured student needs to hear: Losing is nothing but winning a little lesser. Naturally, he omits the sweaty exam silences and endless nights – the hostel-life account he paints is deliberately edited to highlight all the positives (friendship, inspiration, life lessons, love) for a child who needs to experience them. Even the ragging is playful. One by one, we see the characters appear at the hospital in their middle-aged avatars and support Ani by being co-storytellers. Raghav's desire for life is cleverly juxtaposed with their 25-years-ago battle to win the elusive 'General Championship'. Nostalgia is a trick of memory to make old-ness more bearable. In Chhichhore, nostalgia becomes a sleight of mind to make young-ness less burdensome.
Dangal director (and ex-IITian) Nitesh Tiwari, along with co-writers Piyush Gupta and Nikhil Mehrotra, locates a context to exercise his "good old days" tone on us. It's a personal Mary-Poppins rendition of his own past…but it matters. It makes us laugh a little louder and cry a little softer – and be manipulated a little more willingly – because a family's fate relies on the language of storytelling. The Main Hoon Na style swishes of parody (the 40:1 boy-to-girl ratio in engineering; hero's friends segregated into categories – porn addict, alcoholic, guttermouth, mommy's boy, chainsmoker stud; the filmy villain; the cartoon-level team tryouts) belong in this movie. The slow-motion climax, points tables and backroom meltdowns – they belong here. These stereotypes acquire a sense of gravitas.
Even Varun Sharma, who has long worn out the fat-best-friend caricature, gains an extra sense of purpose, with his whiny voice belting out the film's best one-liners. (His phrase "potty pe dhaniya" is best suited to describe half of commercial Bollywood). The supporting cast is excellent. Ex-AIB sketch star Naveen Polishetty, in particular, stands out as Acid – the boisterous small-towner who thrives on his encyclopedic knowledge of homegrown cuss words. There's an entire montage where he devises a series of colourful crowd chants to sledge ('mentally disintegrate') opponents; the sequence is likely to go down as the year's most expertly composed moment of observational comedy.
Thanks to this gang, Chhichhore is a hoot, but it's not flawless. I get that the story needs a pensive doctor (Shishir Sharma) as a reality check, but his role is limited to repetitive "Raghav's brain has swelled up" warnings. Occasionally, the present-day parts at Ani's posh Mumbai apartment lapse into Aamir-Khan-style preachiness. The adults tend to discuss things not as friends, but as movie characters who want to educate the audience about peer pressure and parental regrets. Sushant Singh Rajput gives a typically sincere performance – his best since MS Dhoni: The Untold Story – but his face-offs with the antagonist (Prateik Babbar 2.0) sound like confrontations between a '90s Shah Rukh Khan fan and a new-millenium Saif Ali Khan fan. The SRK hangover is obvious, but for once his incessant 'face acting' feels somewhat necessary to Ani's crisis-stricken persona. Shraddha Kapoor is fine because Maya is more of an observer, but her present-day version could have done with better prosthetics.
Eventually though, it's Tiwari's understanding of mainstream emotional dynamics that tide the missteps over to frame an enjoyable film. He directs sports better than his contemporaries; the drama pitch is dialled up to rare Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar levels. (Look out for the Kabaddi coach, an ingenious character that redeems Dangal's one-note coach). The behavioural details are uncanny. You can sense that the hostel administrators derive entertainment out of the students, because for better or worse, this is their sport and cinema and sweepstakes and family; they know no other life.
So many stories are told, but more remarkable are the stories untold. Raghav feels like a failure; his eyes are hopeful when he hears about the Class of '92. He only sees their happiness and their successes. But what he doesn't see is this: His parents are now divorced, one of the men's faces is swollen with all the drinking, another is unmarried, one is a by-the-books NRI, the others' backgrounds are unknown maybe because their stories aren't worth telling. Perhaps they have failed to capitalize on promise, perhaps they are loners and societal misfits. All of which further drives home the moral of the father's story: The end result shouldn't be important, especially for a boy looking to make 'the end' his only result. Living is what's important, if only to reach a stage where one can recall – and suffer from – the effects of living it up.
One could argue that providing a rosy picture of college life to a child might make him develop unrealistic expectations from his future. Imagine when he discovers that hostels are nothing like his father's. But there has to be a future to begin with. Some lies are necessary to reach the truth. After all, everyone deserves an opportunity to go from feeling worthless to reflecting on their worthlessness ("chhichhora-pann") in flashbacks.