“Chhalaang” Review: Rajkumar Rao’s Staid Leap of Faith

By Shubhra Gupta

Cast: Rajkummar Rao, Nushrratt Bharuccha, Mohd Zeeshan Ayyub, Saurabh Shukla, Ila Arun, Rajeev Gupta, Suparna Marwah, Baljinder Kaur, Garima Kaur, Naman Jain.

Director: Hansal Mehta

Rating: Two and a half stars

For a while now, the Hansal Mehta-Rajkummar Rao ‘jodi’ has been working smoothly to deliver a series of films which combine meaning with mainstream. Chhalaang, their new collaboration, takes us to small-town Haryana, where a bunch of characters learn to negotiate small-bumps-on-the-road while imbibing big life lessons, and taking the leap of faith.

The first thing that strikes you is the all-round authenticity of settings and accents. Rao, playing a layabout PT teacher in a local school, leads the way. One of the hardest things to pull off is the Haryanvi lingo without sounding like a caricature, and minus a few exceptions, that’s not a problem in this ensemble. Not just Rao, but Baljinder Kaur as his belligerent but loving mother, Naman Jain as his younger brother, and Satish Kaushik as his supportive father, all come off as a realistic family unit.

The other, of course, is just how good Rao is, in providing some shades to a role with a predictable arc: Mahender aka Montu Hooda may be a loser to begin with, but we know he is going to emerge victorious. When we come upon him first, he is a slacker, ignoring the Principal madam’s (Arun) exhortations to shape up. If there were marks for the initiative he shows in running a ‘sanskriti dal’ backed by a retired teacher (Shukla), which goes after canoodling couples in parks, he would be top of the class.

But things are about to change, with the arrival of independent-minded new colleague Neelima (Bharuccha), and the tough, properly trained senior coach Singh (Ayyub). Who will win the fair maiden, the guy who is a known champion slider, or the man who is a strict disciplinarian? Ayyub is a solid actor, and you wish the conflict between the two had been given more teeth, but it peters out soon: Chhalaang knows which side it is on. Which is the thing that makes it staid, this stacking of the chips on the side of the ‘hero’ so openly. There’s also the buffing up of the film with scenes written strictly for laughs, especially those featuring halwai-shop owner Dimpy (Sarna), as well as those that come delivering wise homilies.

Mehta, whose terrific web series Scam 1992 is still making waves, displays a knack of old-fashioned story-telling in this one, which reminds you of Dangal in some of its elements: patriarchal Haryana, feisty young women, and the sports arena becoming a testing ground. Rao makes a gentle enabler of his team, with full encouragement from ‘Neelima madam’: a young girl (Garima Kaur) leads her team, consisting radically of both boys and girls, out of trouble. Girls for the win, yay. –Indian Express