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A character archetype Bollywood screenwriters return to time and again is the “loafer with a heart of gold”: a leading man with limited career prospects and few likeable qualities (other than being handsome) who is nevertheless beloved in his small town and allowed to boss around whomever he wants. His only acknowledged flaw is that he doesn’t have a girlfriend — though he will by the end of the movie.
As someone who didn’t grow up watching films with this archetype, it’s a character I’ve never warmed to. The presumed inherent perfection of the main character — whom the audience is supposed to like because of their affinity for the actor playing him — precludes meaningful character growth.
Chhalaang turns the trope on its head, introducing a typical “loafer with a heart of gold,” exposing his shortcomings, and forcing him to fix them — especially if he wants to get the girl.
Montu (Rajkummar Rao) works as a gym teacher at his old high school in Haryana, even though he’s not interested in teaching. Principal Gehlot (Ila Arun) doesn’t care about the subject either, which is why she hired Montu to fill the job.
The school’s beautiful new computer teacher Neelu (Nushrat Bharucha) piques Montu’s interest. They get off on the wrong foot when Montu publicly embarrasses her parents while he and his boys are out harassing couples celebrating Valentine’s Day. More importantly, Neelu recognizes Montu as a guy who only does things that are easy, avoiding challenges.
Things change with the sudden arrival of a new gym teacher, I. M. Singh (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub). A new state law makes physical education compulsory, forcing Principal Gehlot to hire someone with actual teaching credentials. She tells Montu he can stay on as Singh’s assistant, but Montu’s pride won’t allow it. He throws down the gauntlet: he and Singh will train two teams of students for a sports tournament, and the winner gets to keep the job.
It’s a silly premise, but this is a comedy after all — and a pretty good one at that. There are lots of well-written jokes that are carefully translated in English subtitles by Laxminarayan Singh. Rao is always good, and he plays Montu with sincerity. Rao and Bharucha have a nice chemistry as well. Even better is the relationship between Rao and Saurab Shukla, who plays Montu’s former teacher and best friend, Mr. Shukla.
Coaching the kids in preparation for the tournament — which features funny play-by-play announcing by Mr. Shukla and Principal Gehlot — helps Montu learn the importance of seeing a task through to its completion, regardless of the outcome. However, it’s a little morally questionable that the kids are forced to partake in the competition over their parents’ objections and at the expense of their academics. And Montu’s training methods — which include siccing dogs on them to make them run faster — aren’t exactly orthodox.
A preponderance of moral inconsistencies keep Chhalaang from being the family-friendly classic it could have been. Neelu — who is established as a dedicated and compassionate educator — suffers for the sake of Montu’s character growth. When parents pull their children from the competition, Neelu threatens to fail the students in retaliation. Montu’s lawyer father Kamlesh (Satish Kaushik) joins her, threatening legal action against the parents unless the kids participate. It’s not funny and seems out of character for both Neelu and Kamlesh.
Neelu is part of another insensitive scene that errs while trying to make a valid point. She brings Montu to a school for students with special needs where she volunteers in her off-hours. The purpose is to show Montu — whose team for the competition is made up of kids who’d rather be studying math, while Singh’s is all jocks — that every student can flourish with the help of a dedicated teacher. Neelu tells Montu, “Any teacher can take a student from 90 to 100, but only a good teacher can take a student from 10 to 40.” It’s a clever line, but there had to be a better way to make this point than calling specials needs students a bunch of 10s out of 100.
Chhalaang‘s writing is its best and worst feature. The dialogue is top notch. Director Hansal Mehta does what he can to make the film enjoyable and to make Montu’s evolution feel earned. But the screenplay, by writers Luv Ranjan, Aseem Arrora, and Zeishan Quadriis, needed more moral consistency.