Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui is the first mainstream Bollywood romance to feature a transgender lead character. While the movie represents a huge step forward, it opens up a wider conversation about representation and who gets to tell trans stories.
Manu (Ayushmann Khurrana) runs a gym in Chandigarh that struggles for business. He hopes that winning the local strongman competition in a few months will raise his gym’s profile, but his chances of beating the reigning champ are slim.
Then Maanvi (Vaani Kapoor) arrives. New in town, Maanvi shows up at the gym to start a new Zumba program — one of Manu’s schemes to keep the gym afloat while he trains for the competition. Maanvi is gorgeous and energetic, and soon her Zumba students outnumber the bodybuilders.
On top of being popular, Maanvi is kind and generous. She helps Manu when he breaks his nose, getting him safely home and impressing his family in the process. The two spend time together, sparks fly, and love blooms.
Yet Maanvi is cautious. She’s been hurt before, so it’s only when Manu proposes marriage that she tells him an important secret: she’s transgender. Confirming her worst fears, Manu reacts terribly, spewing hateful slurs and vowing to ruin her life.
Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui is aimed at a broad audience — many of whom may not have given much thought to what it means to be transgender and the challenges that come with that — so the plot hinges on Manu’s emotional process as he comes to understand what Maanvi’s confession means for both of them. He educates himself about what it means to be transgender, educating the audience in the process.
Given the power imbalance that favors male stars in Bollywood, many romantic comedies treat their female leads as little more than accessories to the male lead. Not so with Maanvi. She has a full backstory that’s conveyed through her current relationships and also via smaller details, like the cutting scars on her arms or the nervous way she fidgets with the strap on her purse during a conversation that could turn awkward. The film tells us who Maanvi was by showing us who she is, without relying on flashbacks. Maanvi is a prime example of how to write a female lead character with as much depth as the man she’s romancing.
Two main points of criticism can be leveled at Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui that have nothing to do with how watchable or competently-made the movie is (it is both): the actor playing Maanvi is not a transgender woman, and no one on the writing team — including director Abhishek Kapoor — is trans. To the second point, the idea for the film’s story came from writer Simran Sahni, who is a mother to two trans daughters. Director Kapoor has stated in interviews that he and his co-writers consulted with trans people and organizations while writing the film.
Not casting a trans woman to play Maanvi is a missed opportunity. That’s taking nothing away from Vaani Kapoor’s performance, which is the best of her career. But casting a transgender woman would have elevated the movie from being a “conversation starter” to an example of turning a good intention into action. Director Kapoor claims that the film needed an established star like Vaani to draw the audience’s attention, but how can trans actors become stars if directors and producers won’t cast them?
Abhishek Kapoor told Filmfare: “This is not the last movie, this is the first movie of its kind that has been made and the kind of response and the kind of houses that this story has penetrated because of the kind of casting we’ve done . . . there is an understanding of the trans community and from hereon when you cast trans people for roles, I think it has opened doors, it has started conversations.” He’s right that this is the first movie of its kind. And maybe it was the studio or producers who insisted on a cisgender woman playing Maanvi. Still, hoping that someone else will see the success of Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui and take the next step is by no means a sure thing.
As much as I enjoyed the film, I recognize that as a cisgender woman I may have missed important context or other elements that could be problematic. I’ve linked below to a couple of articles about the film written by trans women that I found helpful, as well as interviews with Abhishek Kapoor about his casting choices. I’ve also linked to a great video essay about intention in storytelling that, while about a different specific subject (Asian-inspired movies by non-Asians), still seems relevant to Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui.
- Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui at Wikipedia
- Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui at IMDb
- “This Is Not a Movie Review” at Gaysi Family
- Instagram post by screenwriter Gazal Dhaliwal
- Indian Express interview with Abhishek Kapoor
- Filmfare interview with Abhishek Kapoor
- Tribune India story about Simran Sanhi
- “Big Trouble in Little China: Offensive or Not?” video essay by Accented Cinema