Mahender Singh Hooda (Rajkummar Rao), or Montu, likes to wake up late. He’s quit so many things that his punctuality, or the lack of it, has ceased to matter. He quit studying science in school because he found physics tough. He was a promising sportsman but couldn’t maintain a professional rigour: quit cricket and athletics. His final option was to carry the family legacy forward – by becoming a lawyer – but that wasn’t easy, either. So, he quit that as well. Montu is now a “PT (physical training)” instructor at a local school, one where he studied, a job he got because of his father. Hansal Mehta’s Chhalaang, streaming on Amazon Prime Video, is about a man so disinterested and jaded that he’s transcended all notions of failure.
The film is set in a small town in Haryana. With a young directionless man driving this story, Chhalaang could have easily been a weighty drama, wrapped in the protagonist’s regret, exasperation and anger. Instead, it is a comedy. A genre that provides crucial insight about the place and people. Montu doesn’t feel like a loser, because he hangs out with those who are as unmoored as him: Shuklaji (Saurabh Shukla), a teacher at the same school and Dimpy (Jatin Sarna), the owner of a local sweetshop. Montu is also a part of Sanskari Dal, a group that thrashes couples roaming in parks. There’s no space for self-doubt or introspection in Montu’s world – instead, there’s a lot of bravado, bragging, vanity. A character gives a succinct term to this condition: “Chowdhary Complex”.
Any inherent contradiction lends itself to compelling comedy, and the writers (Luv Ranjan, Aseem Arrora and Zeishan Quadri) mine that opportunity with a lot of relish. They first set the stage with unlikely pairs: Rao and Shukla, Rao and Satish Kaushik (Montu’s father), Rao and Kaushik and Shukla. Rao and Shukla, especially, share lively chemistry. The banters fly with ease; the one-liners have smooth flamboyance. The comedic set-pieces carry the story forward, illuminating this insular, hidebound world and its people, who are forever battling emasculation, humiliation, and egotism.
First 45 minutes, quite solid. Even though a new character, Montu’s colleague, Neelima (Nushrat Bharucha), a computer teacher, threatens to dilute the film. Her accent sounds laboured, and Montu falling for – and incessantly following – her seems so tired that it fails to evoke anything. (It beats me: when will Bollywood filmmakers stop interpreting modern romance in small towns as an extension of stalking?) Still, not a big deal.
The problems arise when the film introduces another character, Inder Mohan Singh (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub), a new PT teacher, tasked to train the students with his assistant… Montu. A PT teacher for many years, Montu has been suddenly demoted, and that hurts his pride. The film then becomes a bizarre play of one-upmanship between the two men. The contrast, as shown in most formulaic films, is stark. Montu is disinterested; Inder is driven. Montu lacks the skills; Inder is trained. Montu’s socially awkward, especially around Neelima; his scooter, like him, stutters to start – Inder flirts with her; he drives a Bullet. Inder, for no good reason, has suddenly become the villain.
But the film starts to self-sabotage when it veers from its core. Wanting to prove himself, Montu proposes a ‘radical’ plan: a competition between his and Inder’s team – the winner gets to be the main PT teacher. The participants will be school children, who have no say in the matter. The film dresses it up as an intense moment, when it’s really quite silly: two adults behaving like kids, while using children as props to massage their egos. It also becomes a regional fight, as Inder is from Punjab. You suddenly feel as if a different film has begun playing.
Ticking the clichés
Chhalaang starts ticking sports films’ clichés with so much fervour that it becomes painfully trite. Scene after scene, the movie strains itself to please the audience – at the expense of logic, coherence, common sense. Montu assembles a team of nerds and backbenchers – the ‘losers’ – who have no aptitude for, or interest, in sports. He trains them via ‘cinematic’ methods – making wild dogs chase them so they learn to run fast, directing them to dribble amid cakes of cow dung, telling them to knead dough and so on – that would insult any self-respecting sportsperson. He recruits girls in his team, garnering feminist points. There’s obviously an ‘inspirational’ song accompanying the team’s training. It also doesn’t help that you can predict the climax at least an hour before the film ends, nullifying even an iota of intrigue.
Suddenly the film obsesses over winning and losing. But winning what – and at what cost? Several scenes assert that inculcating fear and manipulating lead to ‘success’ – and that’s all that matters. But what good is that triumph if it comes via coercion and bullying? All of this eludes comprehension because it’s done to placate a man-child’s ego. Montu’s ‘awakening’, Neelima ‘accepting’ him, his father cheering him on – none of it makes any sense at all. Further, there’s so much needless sentimentality – and a desperate craving for audience’s approval – here that it’s baffling. For a film purportedly telling an underdog story, Chhalaang never probes the true import of success and failures. The film changes so many tracks, right till the last monologue, that it’s difficult to say what it is about. But it’s clear that it’s an incoherent, self-righteous mess.
A pity, for it comes from Mehta, a filmmaker who just delivered the best Hindi drama of the year, Scam 1992. It’s a pattern that has hounded him for years. After a spate of mediocre films in the aughts, Mehta returned to his roots with an earnest, excellent film, Shahid (2012). Since then, he’s made City Lights (2014, middling), Aligarh (2016, competent), Simran (2017, mediocre but with flashes of memorable raw intensity), and Omerta (2018, forgettable). And now Chhalaang, the worst of the lot. Yet Scam 1992, which released last month, looked like a stunning course correction. It’s evident that Mehta is trying – a lot – but perhaps he’s not taking a step back to look at the big picture. Chhalaang, however, is a worrying sign, for it’s fundamentally shoddy, marked by numerous obvious failings. Mehta, at the same time, isn’t oblivious to a comeback — cinema, like life, cherishes a valiant protagonist.