Bollywood likes films that explore India’s conscience through the lens of sports, such as Chak De India, Mary Kom, and Dangal. Hansal Mehta’s recent film Chhalaang follows the spirit of this trend, but chooses to focus on a single school instead of the whole country. While other sports films often focus on fostering India’s national identity, Chhalaang centers on education and women’s equality.
Rajkummar Rao stars as Montu Hooda, a slacking physical education teacher who must learn to motivate his students to win a competition—or lose his job if he fails. The film tries to deliver two messages: the importance of supporting athletics for students, and the unequal treatment of women. Unfortunately, the film struggles to juggle them, and fails to see the irony in its own failure. The result is an engaging and funny film, punctuated by hollow preachiness and flat characters.
Director Mehta makes it clear early on that his film will address moral and social issues. Montu Hooda is a physical training teacher at a local school, who proudly proclaims that he got his job solely through nepotism. While having no redeeming qualities himself, Hooda polices nearby parks for couples so he can publicly shame them in the newspaper for “spitting on India’s morals.” This is a direct jab at moral policing, a growing form of harassment in India, particularly against women. The practice involves young men gathering in small gangs to socially (or even physically) attack innocent displays of an unmarried couple’s affection, such as holding hands or drinking tea together on a park bench.
When an attractive new teacher, Neelu Mehra (Nushrat Bharucha), at his school turns out to be the daughter of a couple that Hooda harrasses, she confronts him and his antiquated ideals. After getting destroyed verbally, Hooda immediately changes his mind, and becomes a stalwart defender of women. Neelu calls out his abrupt change, claiming “[Hooda] wouldn’t have cared if I wasn’t beautiful.” Unfortunately, this is as far as the movie goes towards recognizing its flaws, because Mehra becomes inexplicably enamored with Hooda minutes after this scene.
As the story progresses, Mehra motivates Hooda to stop quitting in life. This motivation proves to be fruitful when Hooda must train a team of students to win a sports competition against his rival’s team to keep his job. During this competition, Chalaang addresses the pressure young Indian girls face at home. The parents of one of Hooda’s most talented athletes force her to withdraw from the competition because “sports are no place for a girl.” All of the other parents agree, and confront Hooda for poisoning the youth. Hooda passionately argues that parents like them cripple India’s sports potential on the world stage.
While these moments should serve as wake-up calls to India’s parents, the movie subverts their power through its inconsistency.
Inconsistent Values, Inconsistent Depictions
While Chhalaaang tries to champion womens’ empowerment, it fails to empower its own leading lady, Neelu Mehra. Mehra is the smartest character in the film. She’s the only college-educated teacher at the school, and when Hooda faces his most insurmountable obstacles, she’s the one who cleverly solves them. In those moments, Mehra demonstrates her wisdom and understanding of India’s social issues. Despite this, Mehra exists only as a prize for the two men whose teams compete in the film’s central conflict.
This approach differs from another film with a male coach, Dangal. In that film, the female lead earns a gold medal and hangs it around her coach’s neck. This voluntary transfer of recognition validates her effort, while also equally honoring her teacher. In Chhalaang, Mehra is just as responsible as Hooda for the victory, but the film treats Mehra like a cheerleader during the victory. In fact, Hooda spends more time thanking his rival than Mehra in his final speech, while she just smiles and claps.
Similarly, the film can’t decide its balance between demonstrating and preaching.
During a delicate situation that risks the students’ eligibility to compete, Mehra demonstrates her cleverness by solving it with just four words. For minutes, she only repeats the same four words, but the depth of thought behind her actions is evident through the scene’s context and Bharucha’s acting.
Unfortunately, such demonstrative scenes are rare. Chhalaang relies heavily on long-winded speeches to explain its moral themes instead of illustrating them through a character arc or plot point. As a result, characters in the film feel familiar but superficial. After one such speech, all of the characters congratulate Hooda and encourage him to run for political office as a symbol for how India needs to change. Ironically, the film doesn’t acknowledge that politicians’ speeches are notoriously regarded as empty promises.
During its demonstrative scenes, Chhalaang shines, but its inconsistencies undermine its effectiveness.
An Empty Reflection
Chhalaang’s failure to provide a consistent message isn’t unique to the film. At a deeper level, it’s reflective of India and the social reckoning it faces today. Indian culture traditionally respects women greatly, while simultaneously constraining them to strict roles and failing to create a safe environment for them. Protestors in the 2012 Delhi rape case brough this contradiction into the public consciousness, and consequently into more prominence in the film industry. Since then, we’ve seen an increase in nuanced feminist movies in India.
Unfortunately, Chhalaang is not one of those movies. The film shies away from nuance: either women are athletic heroes, or they’re prizes for athletics. Even Hooda’s redemption arc suffers from a lack of nuance; he decides to support women because the woman he’s attracted to told him so. There’s no realization to teach the audience, and no thought process to make the change realistic.
Perhaps that’s the lesson for filmmakers–the power of the visual medium lies in its ability to show nuance through wordless depictions. When a film forgoes nuance in favor of superficial speeches or creating a female lead just to serve as a pretty prize, it needs to reconsider its teaching ability.
Despite its thematic weaknesses, Chhalaang is an entertaining underdog story. However, resonating with its deeper messages proves difficult when the film itself can’t remain consistent with them.
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Chhalaang—India. Dialog in Hindi. Directed by Hansal Mehta. First released November 13, 2020. Running time 2hr 16min. Starring Rajkummar Rao, Nushrat Bharucha, Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, Saurabh Shukla.
Watch Chhalaang on Amazon Prime Video.