I realized embarrassingly late into Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui that it had something in common with Chak De India. Tanya Abrol, who played the fabulously combative Balbir in the 2007 film, plays the fabulously combative sister of Manu (Ayushmann Khurrana) here. It was even later that I realized there was another, less obvious connection between the two films. There’s a famous scene in Chak De India where hockey coach Shah Rukh Khan’s charges beat up a group of harassers in a McDonald’s. At one point, Khan intercepts a bat-wielding goon, saying: “Humari hockey mein chhakke nahi hote”—'chhakke' being six runs in cricket and also a transphobic slur. I remember audience members (myself probably included) cheering at that line.
Chhakke is said multiple times in Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui. Yet while in Chak De India it was said by the hero and intended as a setpiece-capping joke, in Abhishek Kapoor's film the usage is different in ways that are worth noting. For starters, it’s only uttered by the hero’s dimwitted friend and later by the film’s villain. It’s clearly intended as a slur. And the hero doesn’t like hearing it one bit—even at the time he himself is transphobic.
Manu is a handsome buff Chandigarh idiot. Maanvi (Vanni Kapoor) is a svelte Zumba teacher from Ambala. They meet when she starts taking classes at the gym he owns. He’s a decidedly unformed article, living at home with his father, granddad and two nagging sisters, his only ambition to win the local muscleman tournament he’s been a two-time runner-up in. Still, she thinks this whey-eating, weight-lifting jock is cute—in Chandigarh, apparently, you settle for the least troubling Neanderthal—and they get close during a drunken Holi party. This is followed by a song montage which is to sex what Befikre was to kissing.
The film foreshadows its big reveal, making Maanvi hover over the ‘male’ and ‘female’ boxes on a dating app. The scene where she comes out to Manu as trans is played for drama, but the audience I saw it with laughed nervously throughout, a common Indian viewer reaction to any film that deals with a non-cis or non-hetero character. Manu, not surprisingly, freaks out after learning that the beautiful woman he’s been having a lot of sex with is a beautiful trans woman. They break up, and soon the neighbourhood knows. Surprisingly, Manu keeps hanging around, telling Maanvi how hurt he is.
Khurrana is the right actor for this sort of scenario, adept at playing the daft male whose world view must be changed by degrees and the use of small words. It’s become a sub-subgenre: Khurrana being explained the ways of the world slowly and patiently and emerging a better man. Here he is schooled by a doctor and a hijra woman who'd earlier asked for money at a traffic signal. It gets fairly laboured (a diagram is involved), and the writing, by Kapoor, Tushar Paranjape and Supratik Sen, isn’t as witty as it was in the actor’s early films. But would a hipper, less direct film make any inroads with an audience that’s right where Manu is, if not a few steps behind, in terms of enlightenment?
Like Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga a few years ago, Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui wants to hold the viewer’s hand and teach them the error of their ways. Thus you have the soft landing of a cisgender actor playing a transgender character, and a film that goes out of its way to explain that she physically resembles a cis woman. A more provocative scenario might have been alpha male Manu falling for a woman who wants to be a man, or one who hasn’t had gender-affirmation surgery.
Manu’s friends, twins played by Gourav and Goutam Sharma, are very funny, but the other characters—his widower dad, Maanvi’s parents and butch friend—feel more screenwritten than real (a big problem for Hindi cinema of late). Kapoor doesn’t have much of a visual language, the songs are more amusing than memorable. Yet, a bolder or better-made film might not necessarily have had Chandigarh’s heart. Manu’s besotted glances at Maanvi, long after he knows her truth, resemble something like growth for a film culture that 14 years ago was laughing along with Chak De India.