Friday 13 November 2020

"Chhalaang" (Guardian 12/11/20)

Chhalaang ***

Dir: Hansal Mehta. With: Rajkummar Rao, Nushrat Bharucha, Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, Saurabh Shukla. 135 mins. No cert.

The housebound Diwali celebrations of 2020 kick off with this appreciably daft comedy on an enduring theme of Indian cinema: the goon’s redemption. Its best joke came about during casting. In the lead, we find not one of Bollywood’s musclemen, but Rajkummar Rao, the elastic underdog who played the lovelorn playwright in last year’s Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga. What’s funny about his Montu, a small-town PE teacher several degrees more childish than his students, is that he’s a beta male convinced he’s an alpha, as inflated as the splendiferous quiff he maintains, possibly to cultivate an illusion of height. His remodelling into marriage material plays out like an extended “physician, heal thyself” riff. Heard the one about the PE teacher who needed to shape up?

The script writer-producer Luv Ranjan passed to director Hansal Mehta has the rigidity of a fitness plan. A prize is dangled before the protagonist: Nushrat Bharucha as Neelu, the new colleague whose parents Montu’s mob have harassed in a park. An obstacle is established in Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub’s moustachioed cricket coach, with whom Montu brawls in a sandpit. Around them, Mehta stages a series of challenges designed to help our boy realise the man he could be if he puts in the work. It’s a matter of character, finally, which is why supporting roles have been staffed with capable veterans (Satish Kaushik, Saurabh Shukla, Ila Arun), while the writing pursues the idea Montu’s bluffness is really a shield for bruised self-esteem.

We’re never far from feelgood convention, and the second half follows familiar sports-movie lines, as the warring tracksuits pick teams of kids to settle their differences for them. Montu trains mathletes in kabaddi, the Montage Generator 5000 is cranked up, and the score starts aping Rocky. Still, it’s not all testosterone – Bharucha, with whom Rao fosters a nice, wary chemistry, ensures this B-squad is better integrated – and even the broader material is inventive: facing limited resources, Montu drills his team around cowpats to hone their precision. Drama specialist Mehta (2012’s Shahid) brings to this lighter task a professionalism one could easily underrate. Handled carelessly, fluff like this often unravels into nonsense, but Chhalaang feels faintly precious for landing intact near the end of a heavy year. 

Chhalaang is now available to stream via Prime Video.

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