Mahender Singh Hooda (Rajkummar Rao), or Montu, likes to wake up late. He’s quit so many things that his punctuality, or the lack of it, has ceased to matter. He quit studying science in school because he found physics tough. He was a promising sportsman but couldn’t maintain a professional rigour: quit cricket and athletics. His final option was to carry the family legacy forward – by becoming a lawyer – but that wasn’t easy, either. So, he quit that as well. Montu is now a “PT (physical training)” instructor at a local school, one where he studied, a job he got because of his father. Hansal Mehta’s Chhalaang, streaming on Amazon Prime Video, is about a man so disinterested and jaded that he’s transcended all notions of failure.
The film is set in a small town in Haryana. With a young directionless man driving this story, Chhalaang could have easily been a weighty drama, wrapped in the protagonist’s regret, exasperation and anger. Instead, it is a comedy. A genre that provides crucial insight about the place and people. Montu doesn’t feel like a loser, because he hangs out with those who are as unmoored as him: Shuklaji (Saurabh Shukla), a teacher at the same school and Dimpy (Jatin Sarna), the owner of a local sweetshop. Montu is also a part of Sanskari Dal, a group that thrashes couples roaming in parks. There’s no space for self-doubt or introspection in Montu’s world – instead, there’s a lot of bravado, bragging, vanity. A character gives a succinct term to this condition: “Chowdhary Complex”.
The problems arise when the film introduces another character, Inder Mohan Singh (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub), a new PT teacher, tasked to train the students with his assistant… Montu. A PT teacher for many years, Montu has been suddenly demoted, and that hurts his pride. The film then becomes a bizarre play of one-upmanship between the two men. The contrast, as shown in most formulaic films, is stark. Montu is disinterested; Inder is driven. Montu lacks the skills; Inder is trained. Montu’s socially awkward, especially around Neelima; his scooter, like him, stutters to start – Inder flirts with her; he drives a Bullet. Inder, for no good reason, has suddenly become the villain.
But the film starts to self-sabotage when it veers from its core. Wanting to prove himself, Montu proposes a ‘radical’ plan: a competition between his and Inder’s team – the winner gets to be the main PT teacher. The participants will be school children, who have no say in the matter. The film dresses it up as an intense moment, when it’s really quite silly: two adults behaving like kids, while using children as props to massage their egos. It also becomes a regional fight, as Inder is from Punjab. You suddenly feel as if a different film has begun playing.