Director – Hansal Mehta
Cast – Rajkummar Rao, Nushrratt Bharuccha, Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, Saurabh Shukla, Satish Kaushik, Ila Arun, Jatin Sarna
Just when you thought 2020 couldn’t pull the rug from under your feet one more time, it delivered a Luv Ranjan film that is actually quite enjoyable. To be fair though, it took the finest actor-director pair in contemporary Hindi cinema to achieve this near-impossible feat.
Chhalaang is star Rajkummar Rao and filmmaker Hansal Mehta’s fifth movie together, and even though it is the weakest of the lot — Aligarh and Shahid are both Oscar-worthy — it’s a consistently engaging picture, elevated by a handful of excellent performances, and a sharp script.
Watch the Chhalaang trailer here
You’ll understand my apprehension at seeing Luv Ranjan’s name plastered prominently in the promotional material, and, indeed, multiple times in the film itself. The man has earned, over a rather young career, the dubious distinction of being Bollywood’s resident sexist. But in the quietly empowering Chhalaang, Ranjan, who is credited as co-writer, appears to be making amends for past sins.
At first glance, it’s impossible to identify what drew Mehta to it. I’d imagine it was made around the same time as his recent series, the excellent Scam 1992. But it’s a refreshing change of pace for the filmmaker, who has an instinctive ability to tap into the humanity of his characters, regardless of genre.
Chhalaang tells the story of Montu (Rao), a wastrel of a man with a history of giving up on almost every task that he has ever undertaken. Fate has installed him as the PT teacher at his childhood school. But Montu is so utterly disinterested in his job that he spends the PT periods eating samosas under the tree, while the students catch up on their homework.
He’s inseparable from the school’s Hindi teacher, Shukla ji (played by Saurabh Shukla, no relation). Although it’s unclear who the lackey is — theirs is a co-dependent relationship. At the end of each school day, Montu and Shukla retreat to a rooftop, where they get drunk and ponder life’s bigger questions. There’s a sense that they’ve been performing these rituals for years. They’re stuck in time, and life is passing them by.
These early scenes are genuinely funny, the lines crackle with wit and the characters — including the supporting players — all feel like real people. Chhalaang is one of those rare small-town movies that has a sense of place — it’s set in Haryana — and doesn’t seem like it was shot at Mehboob Studio over a fortnight.
Crucially, Montu isn’t a creep of the same calibre as Vikrant Massey’s character in the recent Ginny Weds Sunny, or Jeetendra Kumar’s character in Chaman Bahaar. True, Montu spends his spare time as a proud member of a Romeo squad, and mildly stalks the school’s new computer teacher Neelu, played by a miscast Nushrratt Bharuccha, but that’s where Mehta’s direction comes in. The creases in Montu’s personality are effortlessly smoothed over by Mehta’s humanist approach.
It’s unfortunate then that the film’s character-driven charms are replaced by plot-driven shenanigans after about an hour in, when an adversary is introduced and the film begins to resemble Karate Kid.
Life throws a wrench in Montu’s well-oiled routines when the school principal, played by a cracking Ila Arun, hires a far more qualified PT teacher as his superior. Played by Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, Mr Singh has many things that Montu doesn’t — determination to succeed, a desire to teach, and a college degree. And when Montu begins noticing worrying signs — Singh is ruthless with the kids, and appears to be eyeing Neelu — he offers a challenge. He will compete against Singh in a three-round contest, pitting Montu’s students against his. The winner gets to keep the job.
Chhalaang is essentially the story of an unremarkable man, with little discernible talent, setting out to accomplish goals that he has set for himself — because, at the end of the day, those are the hurdles that are the hardest to overcome. Montu couldn’t keep up with the rest of the world, but the least he can do is meet his own pace.
The film is a curious counterpoint to Mehta’s Scam 1992, in that they’re both stories about ambition, or the lack of it — and the opportunities (or lack thereof) that India offers to its people. While most individuals are probably like Montu, having settled for the hand that life has dealt them, others like Harshad Mehta have a certain killer instinct that takes them to the top. But who’s more successful — the big-city billionaire who died unattended on a hospital bench, or the small-town guy with zero prospects, but the girl of his dreams in his corner?