The housebound Diwali celebrations of 2020 kick off with this appreciably daft comedy on an enduring theme of Indian cinema: the goon’s redemption. In the lead, we find 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 role as 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?
And so the script, by writer-producer Luv Ranjan, 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 thuggish mates 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, director Hansal 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, with the script pursuing the idea that Montu’s bluffness is really a shield for bruised self-esteem.
Nevertheless, we are 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. 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 a professionalism you 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.
• Chalaang is on Amazon Prime.