Chhalaang movie review: Rajkummar Rao-starrer lacks focus but clicks when it finally settles down as a sports drama

Anna MM Vetticad
·5-min read

Language: Hindi

"Yeh jo tera fluctuation hai na, hero aur ch****e ke beech ka, kamaal ka hai Bhaisaab... Arrey, confused aadmi hai tu, confused hai." (The way you fluctuate between being a hero and a dimwit blows my mind... You are one confused man.)

These words spoken by Shuklaji (played by Saurabh Shukla) to his friend, Mahinder Hooda aka Montu (Rajkummar Rao), hint at Chhalaang's own major weakness: its fluctuating themes.

The Hindi title translates to "leap", and that is what the film does for its first hour or so: leap from one topic to another to another, such that it feels like three or four separate stories sewn together by a tailor with unsteady hands.

There is the tale of the hypocritical conservative hooligan in small-town Haryana who gets violent with couples seen publicly hanging out together, until he falls for a woman himself. There is the fellow who takes his career lightly until life gives him an electric shock. There is the immature contest between two grown men over "naukri" (job) and "chhokri" (not the most respectful Hindi word for "girl"). And then there is a sports drama.

Montu, of course, is the central figure in all four. The woman he loves is Neelima (Nushrratt Bharuccha) and his bête noire is Inder Mohan Singh (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub).

When he is not intimidating and beating up hapless men and women whose behaviour does not conform to his idea of decency, Montu is a Physical Training Instructor in a local school. This is not a profession he chose out of passion, but one that fell in his lap when his Dad (Satish Kaushik) asked a friend (Ila Arun) to give him a job, never mind what. Montu neglects his students but is startled out of his complacency one day when a dapper and committed Inder enters the picture.

Through a series of events, Montu and Inder end up competing for their position in the school and for Neelima's affections. Following a further series of events, the film finally settles down as a sports drama.

Chhalaang is saddled with inconsistent writing. On the one hand are Montu's well-rounded, well-written relationships with Shuklaji and his father, and clever lines €" some amusing, some hard-hitting €" such as the play on words when Montu's Dad mispronounces the English "widower" as "widovar" and explains it in these Hindi terms: "voh var jo widow hai" (a groom who is a widow).

(Pause: excuse me while a loud guffaw interrupts my writing.) On the other hand are the marginalisation of Neelima and Inder in the second half, and loose threads such as a vaguely mentioned back story between Shuklaji and Montu's principal.

On the one hand Chhalaang takes a stand for the empowerment of girls, and male characters are chided for stereotyping women or depriving them of opportunities. On the other hand, the script lets Montu's brother get away with describing Neelima as "aisi piece". The writing conflicts €" between a desire to appear progressive and possibly innate conservatism €" are encapsulated in these lyrics by Guru Randhawa and Luv Ranjan for the song 'Teri Choriyaan':

Teri Teri Teri Akhiyon Ke

Jaal Vich Kho Gaya Main

Bina Puchhe Baby Tera Ho Gaya Main

Gore Gore Gaal Tere Touch Karne

Dede Permission Aaj Yeah Yeah Yeah

(Your eyes have entrapped me / Without asking you I have become yours / Please give me permission today to touch your white cheeks.)

In a Bollywood that continues to romanticise molestation as a form of courtship, it is worth noting that the man here wants the woman's "permission" to touch her, but for heaven's sake when will writers retire "gore gore gaal" (white cheeks) as a mark of feminine beauty?

It is also exasperating that in the 21st century, Bollywood is still making films where women are treated as a prize to be won at the end of a contest. Literally. Not only does a character confront Inder at one point and ask if he thought he could get away with Montu's naukri and chhokri, in the end Montu describes a woman as a match he has yet to win €" again, literally.

Perhaps Chhalaang's conflicted feel is a result of the team-up between director Hansal Mehta (Shahid, Aligarh, Simran), who is known for his sensitive themes and minimalist storytelling, and Ranjan whose calling cards are Pyaar Ka Punchnama 1&2 and Sonu Ke Titu Ki Sweety, which ooze with resentment and hate towards womankind. Mehta has directed Chhalaang while Ranjan is its co-producer (along with Ajay Devgn and others) and its co-writer (with Aseem Arrora and Zeishan Quadri). The patchwork effect too could be a consequence of minds not meeting. Or maybe there are just too many chefs in this kitchen.

Redemption for Chhalaang comes in the second half when Mehta and his editors (credits: Akiv Ali and Chetan M Solanki) handle the sports training and matches with panache, giving them pace and emotional intensity.

Rao is chameleon-like in his performance as Montu. It is a particular delight to watch him as he moves to the closing song, 'Care Ni Karda,' and lip syncs impressively to its English rap lyrics. (The inclusion of the song though is formulaic, and a complete break from the mood of the preceding scenes.)

Bharuccha is adequate as Neelima, but the attempt at a Haryanvi accent weighs more heavily on her than on the rest of the cast.

I enjoyed seeing Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub being positioned as a hottie in this film €" he has what it takes, and other directors ought to notice. He is excellent as always but deserved more space in Chhalaang.

Shukla, Kaushik and Arun do a fine job in supporting roles. And the students are all played by competent actors that we will hopefully see again in future.

Chhalaang lacks focus for too long, but the wait proves worthwhile when the sports training sessions take off. Its internal confusion though robs it of a place among Mehta's best works.

Chhalaang is streaming on Amazon Prime Video India.

Rating: **1/2

(Also read: Rajkummar Rao, Nushrat Bharucha on entering unexplored territory with Chhalaang, and working with Hansal Mehta)

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