By Poulomi Das Sep. 06, 2019
Nitesh Tiwari's Chhichhore is a pleasant entertainer elevated by the strength of its supporting cast. It's also an unabashed acknowledgement of male failure. If Dangal eulogised individual glory, Chhichhore contradicts it, attempting to universalise an oft-neglected fact: Even losing is a sport.
Three years ago, Nitesh Tiwari, then just one film old, burst into the public consciousness when he made Dangal, a big-budget biopic fronted by an A-list actor reputed for his exhaustive perfection. Yet in a way, the film’s extravagant although unsurprising record-breaking success (Dangal has made over Rs 2000 crore) ended up limiting Tiwari’s scope for further experimentation. To have one’s sophomore outing go down in history as the “highest grossing Indian film ever” can be both a triumph and a burden. Anything that would follow Dangal would inevitably have to field comparisons and it looked as if Tiwari’s eventual directorial outings might be too caught up in playing a game of match up.
But in Chhichhore, his follow-up to Dangal, it’s admirable how smartly the director finds a way to avert the memory of the Aamir Khan-led blockbuster. In fact, Chhichore, a nostalgia-dunked excursion about the friendships that we develop during college with people who go on to become makeshift families, feels almost antithetical to Dangal. Not only is it financially modest and comparatively easier to mount, but its cast is also remarkably star-free, boasting of actors who hide in the ordinariness of their characters instead of making a star out of them. Yet, the most striking dissimilarity between Dangal and Chhichore, that to me felt like a testament to Tiwari’s perspicacity as a storyteller, is the ambition of its intent: If Dangal was a film that reinforced hyper-masculinity, falling at times in its trap, Chhichhore is an unabashed acknowledgement of male failure. If Dangal eulogised individual glory, Chhichhore directly contradicts it, attempting to universalise an oft-neglected fact: Even losing is a sport.
One of the highlights of Chhichhore, that flits between two timelines, is how its plot takes existing templates and enriches them. Despite its frustrating – and entirely avoidable – weaknesses, Chhichhore feels foremost, a reminder of the pleasures that can be derived from a mainstream film that makes its predictability work in its favour. So even when the movie treads familiar territory, playing out like a mashup between Student of the Year and 3 Idiots, it rarely comes across as derivative.
Chhichhore opens in the present day, introducing Anirudh (Sushant Singh Rajput), a 40-something divorced single father, whose dreary existence revolves around Raghav (Mohammad Samad), his teenage son and Maya (Shraddha Kapoor), his estranged wife. Having just appeared for the competitive JEE entrance exam, Raghav spends most of his days in a haze of paranoia about the impending results. Both his parents dismiss his crippling anxiety as a harmless product of an overactive teenage mind and their passiveness would feel cruelly irresponsible had it not mirrored real life. Indian parents, even when they mean well, have a reputation of remaining inherently distant from the lives of their children. So it’s understandable that when the results don’t go Raghav’s way, he takes a drastic step that lands him in the ICU.
It’s been a while since a mainstream Hindi film has focused on men who compulsively distract themselves from their fear of being rendered irrelevant.
Until this moment, Chhichhore resembles one of those films that would be easy to dismiss. As always, Kapoor is miscast and wholly unbelievable as a middle-aged divorcee with a teenage son, a role that she insists on playing like a passive-aggressive 20-something. And as a father burdened by the misfortunes of his fate, Rajput – a limited actor addicted to trying too hard – dunked under layers of make-up and a balding hairline on the other hand, is ill-equipped to perform restraint. The film’s solemn tone and its stakes, which take a hamfisted approach come across as unconvincing and largely unremarkable as a result. It helps then, that it is at this point, Tiwari shifts gears and the screenplay reveals its secret weapon: youthful nostalgia.
A college reunion is fashioned in the corridors of the hospital and Chhichhore time-travels 20 years into the past to recount the story of Aniruddh’s engineering years in Mumbai’s National Institute of Technology under the guise of motivating his son. It’s in this timeline that Tiwari is in complete control; its autobiographical origins evident in the textures of the film’s compelling world-building.
My biggest grouse with Bollywood has always been that it doesn’t make an effort to understand the nuances of college life: Hindi cinema has long had a vice of designing college universes, instead of recreating them. The best thing about Chhichhore is that it has a genuine fondness for the gimmicks, naivety, and aspirations of this world. It imbues its college universe with specific observations that are informed by reality and every cliche, convenient resolution, and joke fits like a glove. Tiwari creates rooted characters who seem utterly believable in the backdrop of a hormonal engineering setting, even when he arms them with recognisable crutches. It works, not only because these cliches don’t feel like traps, but also because they are elevated by sharp dialogues and the strength of a supporting cast who rarely hit a false note.
At its heart, Chhichhore pays tribute to the oldest Bollywood college trope: an annual intra-college sports competition, winning which becomes a matter of personal pride between the students of two hostels – the bratty overachievers (led by an inconsistently entertaining Prateik Babbar) of H-3 and the bumbling underdogs of H4 – Ani, Sexa (Varun Sharma), a sex-starved fool; Acid (a striking Navin Polishetty); a foul-mouthed idiot; Mummy (Tushar Pandey), a bespectacled nerd; Bewda (Saharsh Kumar Shukla), an alcoholic; and Derek (Tahir Raj Bhasin, physically embodying the word “swagger”), the senior desperate for a last shot at record-breaking glory.
If Dangal was a film that reinforced hyper-masculinity, falling at times in its trap, Chhichhore is an unabashed acknowledgement of the male failure.
The proceedings are naturally, by the books. There are ample jokes about sex and masturbation that oddly don’t feel so out of place, zero participation from women (At one point, Ani implies off-handedly that the girls hostel isn’t taking part in the sports competition because they’re scared), expected shortcuts that are hilarious even when they don’t add up (A scene where Kapoor almost has phone sex with a rival chess player to keep him up at night is a hoot), and overcooked melodrama. And yet, Chichhore manages to sustain interest, partly due to its wholehearted commitment to the irreverence of its universe, a remarkable feat that is best evidenced in a lovely slow-motion sequence in the film’s climax. Or in the homegrown ways its protagonists decide to trick their rivals, right from faking injuries, making up distracting chants, and faking a coach. Tiwari crafts a film that takes its universe more seriously than it takes itself. It’s probably why, unlike 3 Idiots, its social messaging doesn’t feel as preachy, although the film self-sabotages its charm every time it switches to the present.
But if Chhichhore’s misfires feel like they are forgivable, it is solely due to Tiwari’s acuity in drawing out the vulnerabilities of six men who have come to recognise the difference between losers and failures. It’s been a while since a mainstream Hindi film has focused on men who take to compulsively distracting themselves from their fear of being rendered irrelevant until life ends up outrunning them. So even though, Chhichhore’s backdrop is essentially a carnival of testosterone, it never endorses hyper-masculinity. Instead, Tiwari’s gaze almost mocks their juvenile preoccupations (when Sexa bullies two freshers to bring clothes from the girl’s hostel, it is him who ends up as the punchline) and by extension, the justification that“boys will be boys”.
These are the parts of Chhichhore that don’t shy away from treading unconventional ground, whether it is while implying homosexual undercurrents in a boys hostel or when frontlining male failure at a time when they’re often gifted redemptive arcs. Chhichore’s biggest deviation is in its treatment of the commercial entertainer and male redemption: It’s not as if the film doesn’t offer a happy ending to its protagonists, but that it asks them to confront the losses before doing so. In doing so, Nitesh Tiwari sneaks in a pertinent reminder: It’s time the world learnt to live with disappointing itself.
When not obsessing over TV shows, planning unaffordable vacations, or stuffing her face with french fries, Poulomi likes believing that some day her sense of humour will be darker than her under-eye circles.