Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui review: A fine Ayushmann Khurrana message film
A gym freak falls for a trans woman in Abhishek Kapoor's broad-reaching romance Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui starring Ayushmann Khurrana
Some films persuade, others inform. Indian films must do both. I wonder what parameters director Abhishek Kapoor set for himself before making Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui. After all, the kind of audience he's hoping to illuminate with the film might just skip the lesson altogether—it doesn't take long for viewers here to nod attentively then return to giggling. The burden to correct, coax, entertain and teach at the same time is heavy enough to break the strongest of films. It's perhaps why Manu (Ayushmann Khurrana), our protagonist, is a bodybuilder. He, like the film, has some real weight to lift.
Director: Abhishek Kapoor
Cast: Ayushmann Khurrana, Vaani Kapoor, Gaurav Sharma, Gautam Sharma
It begins conventionally, with Manu training at a Chandigarh gym he runs with two friends. "No grunting, groaning, swearing or having loud conversations"—says an overhead plaque. Manu, though, grunts, groans, swears and has loud conversations all the time. He's an athlete—of sorts (GOAT, in Chandigarh-speak, stands for Gabru Of All Time, a local title he's missed twice and is inclined to win). His friends and rivals are of a piece, blasting loud music and battling in underground strength matches. His family, too, is proudly, heavily Punjabi, so much so that I started missing the presence of Dolly Ahaluwalia, Ayushmann's boisterous onscreen mother from his first film.
Into Manu's life enters a girl, Maanvi (Vaani Kapoor), a Zumba coach. Their meet-cute happens after, not before, the formal introductions. Pumping iron one day, Manu punctures his nose. Maanvi takes him to the clinic, then escorts him home. The sequence is lovingly paced, the whole family lining up one by one and embarrassing both boy and girl. It also gives Manu a reason to reach out—touched by her gesture, he asks her to lunch. She hesitates but shows up. We're in a love story, surely the ordinary kind.
We're not. Any rhythm of a traditional romance is botched up when they end up having sex and Maanvi reveals, much later, that she's a trans woman. To the knowing viewer, of course, this was a long time coming. The visual cues that surround Maanvi—she's shown taking pills and visiting a clinic, and we glimpse a shiv shakti poster on her wall—are the biggest misjudgment on the film's part. It sets her up like a twist, less a person than a plot device. Manu's shock and disappointment on finding out is both comic and unpleasant to behold. Even as one half of the audience is squirming at his transphobia, the other is passing chuckles.
In Ayushmann's last theatrical release, Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan, two gay men were unabashedly in love. The characters were fighting the world, not themselves. Chandigarh takes a more inward view of men like Manu. "Woh kya hota hai?" he asks Maanvi, blankly, when she says she's trans. Much later, he admits his ignorance by saying he went to a government school—a line that chimes with the recent NCERT decision to take down a manual on transgender inclusiveness in schools. Yet, this shift of a man overcoming his limited education and conservative upbringing to accept something new isn't caught convincingly on screen. The best Abhishek can do is show Manu watching a bunch of YouTube videos and emerging anew.
The film has a doggedly modern look—this isn't a Punjab we usually see in mainstream Hindi films. Maanvi dresses comfortably uptown, while Manu, a showoff, must flash the brands he wears. The leads feel of their time and place, unlike the supporting characters. Manu's sisters, played by Tanya Abrol and Sawan Rupowali, seem plucked from daily soaps. I couldn't buy a single character from Maanvi's family. The film could have also ditched her spiky-haired, piercing-favouring friend, a casting stereotype Bollywood needs to urgently let go.
Despite the scrutiny surrounding her casting, Vaani, a cis actor, fares well in her role. Ayushmann wins on home ground—not just Chandigarh but the larger sandbox of a slice-of-life film. He nails them so well (and so easily) that this film's push for a sports movie climax is almost laughably extra. The contrived second half blurs the niceness that comes before. The couple walks by a lake, talking. Maanvi says her mother hates the kind of girl she is. Manu says that's not possible. The scene is so quietly precious I wish it ended the film.