Even if you somehow miss Luv Ranjan’s name in the opening credits of Chhalaang, where he’s been credited as a co-writer and co-producer, you’ll find out soon enough. Around half hour into the film, Neelu (Nushrratt Bharuccha) says something smart and walks away with slow-motion swagger, only to make a boy crushing on her, Mahender Hooda a.k.a Montu (Rajkummar Rao), do a celebratory dance. Seconds later, a Guru Randhawa song begins. It’s a situation we’ve seen in many films in the recent past, particularly in the Luv Ranjan universe where it doesn’t seem to take much for men to fall in love. Hansal Mehta’s film is set in Haryana, because is it even a Rajkummar Rao (or Ayushmann Khurrana) film, unless he and most of the secondary cast around him are speaking with the diction from the hinterland. ‘Bawdi puch’ et al, you get the drift.
The protagonist here, Montu, is a slacker of a P.T. teacher at the local municipal school. A state-level athlete at one point, we’re fed nuggets about how his life has come to this. Montu has a friend in the Hindi teacher, Shuklaji (Saurabh Shukla, because Pankaj Tripathi was probably busy), who endorses his younger colleague’s laidback ways while splitting kachoris and booze with him. There’s never been any doubt about Shukla’s credibility as an actor, especially in these middle-of-the-road ‘entertainers’ such as Jolly LLB, but even he cannot rise above the tired formula. Satish Kaushik, who recently played a foul-mouthed trader in Hansal Mehta’s Scam 1992, is on less-novel ground here. Playing a ‘supportive father’ who bonds with his son over a glass of scotch, Kaushik’s character iterates the word randua at least five times in a span of two minutes to describe Shuklaji’s marital status as a ‘widower’. As if we’re in 1995, and the word alone might tickle the audiences into laughing.
Montu and Neelu’s meet-cute is very oddly written too. A part-time member of an “anti-Romeo” squad who go around beating up couples on Valentine’s Day, Montu (strangely) harasses a middle-aged couple in a park. He even takes a picture of them, and gets it published in the local newspaper under a headline suggesting how today’s youth are bringing back ‘sanskaar’. The couple happen to be Neelu’s parents. And even though Neelu publicly berates Montu (after joining his school as a computer teacher) for what he did, hence clearing the screenwriter’s conscience of depicting the ‘correct’ kind of politics, it’s a situation that’s played entirely for laughs. Montu’s involvement with the fringe outfit is never mentioned again. The makers don’t really care about what they’re showing, as long as it is ‘topical’ and ‘entertaining’. The only thing more convenient than Montu’s sudden change of heart, is Neelu going from being disgusted to saying ‘daaru pilaoge?’ (of course, because she’s a ‘progressive’ small-town girl), all in the span of a Guru Randhawa song.
Like most Luv Ranjan films, even this one finds its main conflict around a possible love triangle. Fed up of Montu’s laidback ways, the municipal school’s principal (Ila Arun) brings in a new P.T. teacher, Mr Singh (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub). Ayyub is another solid actor, who gets diminished because of the writers’ lack of trying. Beneath all the blandness in the 136 minutes of Chhalaang, there’s a tiny spark of inspiration when Ayyub’s character says “yahaan (Haryana) ke paani mein ego thodi zyaada hai” while bringing a cocky kid to task. However, that spark is lost immediately when the ‘hero’ picks up a fight with Mr. Singh, thereby upholding (even endorsing) the ego of the average Haryanvi man. There’s a lot of hollow talk about holding on to one’s self-respect instead of a job—especially in a world where it’s sufficiently clear that Montu neither has integrity, and is also terrible at his job. Montu’s incompetence is either mined for laughs, or to make him look ‘cool and carefree’. His tears are utilised to give depth to him. The reason behind his reformation is also remarkably silly—he wants to impress Neelu. He’s really that pathetic.
A word for Nushrratt Bharuccha, who seems to be stuck playing these one-dimensional female leads in the Luv Ranjan universe. It’s a shame that she is made to play yet another character who has no identity of her own. Everything she does is in a bid to ‘transform’ our less-than-ideal protagonist. When he’s failing, she offers him a shoulder to cry on. She expresses pride when Montu takes up a challenge to beat Mr Singh’s team in a local competition. The bet being that whoever wins, gets to stay back as the PT teacher of the school. While Mr Singh selects an all-boys team to take part in the competition, it is Neelu who gives Montu the idea to also look for athletes among the school’s girls. Cos “Mhaari chhoriyaan... chhoron se kam hai ke?” Progressive movie—check.
In the end, Chhalaang seems like a ‘project’ (not a film) designed to retrace the steps of Nitesh Tiwari’s successful films such as Dangal, Chhichhore, and even the less-successful Panga, (written by Tiwari and directed by his wife Ashwini Iyer-Tiwari). It wants to cash in on Rajkummar Rao’s success as a quirky, small-town protagonist from Stree, it wants to create an ensemble of ‘supporting actors’ like Saurabh Shukla, Ila Arun, Satish Kaushik, Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub—a staple characteristic in films such as Bareilly Ki Barfi and Badhaai Ho. There’s no real vision here, apart from making a ‘successful’ film using a reasonably inoffensive “love story”, and finding acceptance amongst the largest possible demographic of Hindi cinema lovers.
If I really wanted to watch a high-stakes, masala game of kabaddi, where a hero’s machismo is on the line, I would rewatch Mahima Chaudhary’s silent fury against Shah Rukh Khan in Pardes. The kabaddi scene in the 1997 film still has more conviction than Hansal Mehta’s film, which doesn’t have a clue about why it’s even a sports film in the first place.