Director: Hansal Mehta
Cast: Rajkummar Rao, Nushrat Bharucha, Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, Saurabh Shukla, Ila Arun, Jatin Sarna
In an early scene in Chhalaang, directed by Hansal Mehta, the protagonist and his friends, having nothing else to do, ambush couples in a park. They ask an elderly couple who’re holding hands to “not do in the public what they should be doing in the bedroom”. Apparently, the film narrates not the coming-of-age tale of an everyday underdog, but the reformation of one of the vilest kind of Indians, who are misogynist and viciously against personal freedom. Only, the storytelling is run-of-the-mill and fluffy to a fault.
Chhalaang belongs to the category of Bollywood comedies that emerged roughly in the beginning of last decade, set in chaotic north Indian small-towns, where characters could be freely petty or artless, where masculinity and youth weren’t sculpted and perfected but caught between the traditional and the modern, unable to find a footing anywhere. These films vaguely resemble the urban comedies of the 70s, where Amol Palekar played an artless and ordinary young man struggling to thrive and prosper in an increasingly competitive world. But unlike the latter, most of the new Bollywood small-town comedies feature women who, regardless of their background, are clones of each other. Exotic, woke and one-dimensional, they are perfect foils to the small-town men who want to court them.
In Chhalaang, Rajkummar Rao plays a loose reworking of his characters from Stree, Bareilly Ki Barfi and Behen Hogi Teri, who had to overcome their fear, ego and laxity to earn the approval of the society. His character, Montu, is as ordinary as his name. In order to find love, he has to find himself first. It’s neither the girl’s (Nushrat Bharucha) parents nor a Goliath villain that poses him the hardest challenge, but his surroundings that has conditioned him to stay mediocre like an irrecognisable speck in a herd.
Montu, who was a talented athlete in his teenage, stands to lose his job as a physical education teacher at the town’s school when a confident and more qualified trainer (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub) arrives. Refusing to be degraded to the position of an assistant, Montu stands up for himself, probably for the first time in life, and asks the amiable school principal (Ila Arun) to conduct a multisport competition to select the right candidate.
The film has a great sub-cast who bring aboard a lot of genuineness and warmth, but they play characters rooted in cliches﹣a quiet and wise father with a good sense of humour, a nagging mother who wants to see his laadla married and settled in life, and a bunch of friends, like Saurabh Shukla’s retired teacher and Jatin Sarna’s sweetshop-wala, who carry the small-town sass and mirth. None of them get a memorable moment.
In Chhalaang, romance doesn’t bloom out of a chemistry between individuals. Neelima (Bharucha) might be idealist and smart, but she can’t help being used as a bone of contention between Montu and his rival. Over a bunch of unreasonable and bland scenes, she oscillates between the two men who are no better than each other.
The chaos, the jokes and the predicaments the characters face are familiar too. Montu selects the math nerds in the school for his kabaddi and basketball teams, and magically prepares them to fight the naturally talented players of the rival team. Simultaenously, he grows as an individual. All in a month’s time. Like the recent Malayalam hit Thanneer Mathan Dinangal, Chhalaang features imperfect teachers, who humiliate each other and cut a sorry figure in front of the students instead of being “role models”. But it lacks any self-awareness to invest on this subject. It coolly moves to the climactic sequence where the school children are forced to fight it out on the court on behalf of two man-babies. The film is set almost entirely within a school compound, but it doesn’t look at the teenager students as human beings who hold opinions and emotions. And most of all, for a film set amidst young people, Chhalaang is acutely boring and unimaginative.
To compare Chhalaang to Mehta’s Shahid or the recent Scam 1992 would be an act highly inappropriate. If those were films with a sturdy vision, this looks like a prank or a cheap thrill he committed in between real work. Mehta gives up the slightest chance to go beyond the superficial or go against the streotypes. At best, his film is a neatly shot costume drama, where actors dressed up as small-towners indulge in 130-minutes of multiplex-friendly tomfoolery.
Chhalaang is streaming on Amazon Prime Video
The Chhalaang review is a Silverscreen original article. It was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the film. Silverscreenindia.com and its writers do not have any commercial relationship with movies that are reviewed on the site.