Hansal Mehta: Chhalaang will inspire people to take physical education seriously
The director talks about following up Scam 1992 with Chhalaang, his approach to comedy and working with Rajkummar Rao for the fifth time
After the heavy meal of Scam 1992, Hansal Mehta is wheeling out the dessert. His latest, Chhalaang, is premiering on Amazon Prime Video on November 13. The film centres on a PT instructor in Haryana trying to earn a measure of dignity in a semi-government school. It's a film about friendship, sports and the status of physical education in our curricula. It is also Hansal's fifth film with Rajkummar Rao, and their first in an admittedly lighter space.
We spoke to Hansal about following up Scam 1992 with Chhalaang, his approach to comedy, and bringing out a new shade to Rajkummar each time.
The timing feels almost perfect for Chhalaang, after such a hard-hitting success last month. Did you plan this as a palate cleanser?
Absolutely. As a filmmaker, I have to keep challenging myself and trying new things. It's a process of evolution. Both these things (Chhalaang and Scam 1992) are part of that process. I've had a great time making the films that I have. However, you need to feel nervous every time you go on a set. There's no place for complacency.
Did sports play a big part in your upbringing?
Back in school, I did not give the physical education class that much importance. While my PT sir, Mr Lenny Gonsalves, was very close to my parents, I never attended his classes. For years, I gave the excuse of appendicitis. While I did enjoy sports and played cricket and table tennis up to a decent level, I tried to shirk away from physical education. And it shows now when I have to work hard on my fitness since I did not imbibe it from childhood.
It's interesting because we have such a stringent academic system in India. Yet, PT teachers are often treated as second-class citizens in schools.
I feel education needs to be far more holistic. It has to be an accommodation of both the mind and the body. Why haven't we produced a Roger Federer? Why haven't we produced great athletes like the US on a regular basis? That is because we don't begin young, and we don't give enough emphasis to physical education at our primary and secondary level. Chhalaang, in a very lighthearted and entertaining way, will inspire people to take physical education more seriously.
This is the first time you and Rajkummar have collaborated on a comedy. Was the experience different from working on Shahid or CityLights or Omerta?
Not at all. Actually, since the days of Shahid, Raj has always told me I should make a comedy. Because we laugh a lot on sets. We joke and crack up together. In all my films, irrespective of the tonality, I keep an environment that is conducive to laughter. Of course, comedy as a genre is a lot more difficult to pull off. In that sense, this was a great opportunity. I like to call Chhalaang a Luv Ranjan film with my kind of realistic, identifiable characters.
Your last release, Scam 1992, has been lauded for its sharp writing. You've also been praised for condensing complex financial jargon in a interesting and palatable way.
All I can say is that we worked really hard on the script. The script (by Sumit Purohit, Saurav Dey, Vaibhav Vishal, and Karan Vyas) was written respecting the audience's intelligence. It was neither dumbed-down nor overly complicated. I think we hit the correct balance of exposition and subtlety. The entire team is humbled by the kind of love and appreciation the show's been getting.
What's next for you after Chhalaang?
I was working on something that we were supposed to start shooting in March. But as you know, nothing could happen (during the lockdown). I'm hoping to start filming in a month to 45 days.