Chhalaang Movie Review: Generic treatment pulls back Rajkummar Rao's sports comedy
One can't help but wonder why the brilliant duo of Rajkummar and Hansal couldn't come up with something less generic
Sports films are always about underdogs — about their struggle to match their opponents and then, in an inspired moment, to surpass them. Be it this millenium's holy trinity of Bollywood sports films — Lagaan, Chak De India, and Dangal — or the low-scale, but big-hearted films like Panga and Hawaa Hawaai or assembly line biopics like Mary Kom, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, and MS Dhoni - The Untold Story, it is always about the underdogs defying odds. Chhalaang, director Hansal Mehta's Amazon Prime Video release, also follows this template.
Chhalaang stays true to another template — the trope of a brash, misogynistic small-town man evolving into an understanding feminist of sorts. Chhalaang is also a template film when it comes to the new-found fascination for small-town feel-good stories, largely starring Ayushmann Khurrana, and even Rajkummar himself. But template films aren't necessarily bad. When done earnestly, they can be quite good.
Cast: Rajkummar Rao, Nushrat Bharucha, Mohammed Zeeshan Ayub, Saurabh Shukla
Director: Hansal Mehta
Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video
Chhalaang is about Montu, a physical training instructor. He harasses couples during Valentine's day in the name of upholding Indian sanskaar. He is as bad a person as he is a teacher. Now, this leader of the anti-Romeo squad has a change of heart just because he is told off by his colleague Neelima (Nushrat), who is the daughter of one of the couples he harassed. This change of heart not only has a flimsy reason, it is never addressed again. Why establish Montu as a villain of sorts just for the sake of a simple meet-cute? In fact, over the course of Chhalaang, there are multiple scenes where Montu is more of a villain than a hero.
Also, the underdogs in this film aren't just the motley group of kids Montu gathers for a tournament against his arch-rival, Singh (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayub). Montu is an underdog too because he is a worthless teacher who suddenly has to turn into a Kabir Khanesque coach to make his team win against a college-certified experienced coach and keep his job.
Although the film takes its time to bring in the sports angle, the small-town humour, courtesy the likes of Saurabh Shukla, Sathish Kaushik, Ila Arun, Jatin Sarna, and Baljinder Kaur, is on point. It might not be tickle your ribs but it consistently elicits a soft chuckle or two. Be it during a harmless drinking session or another harmless drinking session, or yet another... you know, harmless drinking session, Kaushik and Shukla's characters take turns to say something uplifting to Montu that pushes him to test his limits. Another factor in helping Montu find his inner Shifu is Neelima. While the romance track is a disappointment, Nushrat does get some of the most compelling dialogues of Chhalaang.
It is only in the final act that we see Montu train this band of misfits and turn them into sporting achievers. He uses unconventional methods to teach them basketball, kabaddi and running. But, this is used for harmless humour rather than to teach us a thing or two about sports or the lack of a solid support system for aspiring sportspeople. While this might be okay in another film, we can't help but wonder if the brilliant duo of Rajkummar and Hansal could not think of anything less generic. However, the marriage of the differing sensibilities of co-writer Luv Ranjan and director Hansal, surprisingly, works really well and gives us a decent sports drama with 'tickbox' issues like women empowerment and moral policing.
The film still leaves us with several questions. When will we stop branding excellence or the pursuit of excellence as an evil thing? Why is Singh even the antagonist in this film? Why do we have to root for Montu and his team when they are up against a decent coach and some really good sportspersons? But, that's a debate for another day. With Chhalaang, we are content to see Rajkummar's infectious charm rubbing off on Montu as he 'Karate Kid's' his way out of this competition to a predictable ending. Does that preachy sermon in the climax feel like an afterthought? Yes. Did we have fun until that point? Kind of.