‘Chandu Champion’ review: Kartik Aaryan powers satisfying tearjerker

Kabir Khan and Kartik Aaryan find the sweet spot between crunching sports film and full-bore melodrama

Uday Bhatia
First Published14 Jun 2024, 11:51 AM IST
Kartik Aaryan in 'Chandu Champion'
Kartik Aaryan in ’Chandu Champion’

It's a small thing, but I like how Kartik Aaryan, as athlete Murlikant Petkar, sticks with his pronunciation of champion. Instead of cham-pē-ən, which is probably his natural instinct, he goes cham-PIYAWN every time. Initially, I thought it was being done to underline his village upbringing and lack of English education. But there's something about the pronunciation that works with the essential forthrightness and sweetness of Murli. How much more satisfying it must be to say the second half of that word not as the prim 'pi-un' but with those bold, conquering inflections.

Chandu Champion starts shakily, Kabir Khan clearly feeling his way back to assured filmmaking after the disappointing Tubelight and 83. Petkar, a quiet man in his seventies, is at a police station in a small town in Maharashtra, insisting the cops file his complaint against the President for not giving him an Arjuna award. It's not the smoothest framing device, and Aaryan in old person makeup reminded me of school plays where kids would dress up as Gandhi or Tagore. But when the film jumps back to 1952, it quickly settles into a jaunty rhythm that it maintains to the end.

After seeing the wrestler Kashabhai greeted by thousands upon his return from the Olympics with a bronze medal, young Murli becomes obsessed with bringing home an individual Olympic gold. He takes up wrestling—though the akhara only keeps him around for laughs. Years later, he leaves the village and joins the army. He's a good-natured, slightly dim but determined man, a Kabir Khan lead in the lineage of Bajrangi, Laxman Singh and Kapil paaji.

There's a wrestling bout just before Murli leaves the village which bears the stamp of sports action director Robert Miller (his football sequences were a high point in the otherwise turgid Maidaan earlier this year). This carries over into the boxing sequences in the army, where Murli, under the tutelage of coach Tiger Ali (Vijay Raaz), becomes a formidable fighter. The bouts look terrific: Aaryan is ripped and agile, and Sudeep Chatterjee's camera makes all the athletes look semi-mythical. A special word for Nitin Baid's editing, rhythmic and decisive during the sports sequences, unobtrusively dictating the film's pace in general (I particularly enjoyed a you're-in-the-army-now montage with Yashpal Sharma's officer yelling 'namoono' and soldiers marching to 'Gore Gore O Baanke Chhore').

Murli's boxing takes him within a whisker of Olympic qualification, but then another kind of fighting intervenes. Khan limits the war of '65 to one ambitious sequence, a surprise attack on an Indian army camp stitched together to look like a single shot. Murli is severely injured, losing his friend Karnail (Farzi's Bhuvan Arora, wonderful again) and waking up from a coma only two years later. Though the film's trailers only hint at what comes next, many viewers will know by the time they see the film that Murlikant Petkar actually existed, and that he was paralyzed in battle, losing the use of his lower body.

This is where Murli's story becomes truly remarkable. Tiger Ali turns up unexpectedly, takes Murli to see his childhood hero Dara Singh fight (Khan and co-writers Sumit Arora and Sudipto Sarkar use several historical figures and events, like the don of Mumbai gambling, matka king Ratan Khatri, or a sequence from 1972 that has reason to be in the film but nevertheless came as a huge surprise). Ali pushes his protege to revive his dream of Olympic glory as a paraathlete. The real Murli represented India in several displines, including table tennis and javelin throw, but Khan wisely focuses on swimming.

The spirit of Bhaag Milkha Bhaag hovers over this film (Miller worked on that as well). Both are post-independence tales, with the army providing discipline and mentorship for wayward youth. Chandu Champion even does a version of the scene where Milkha Singh is distracted mid-race by the literal ghosts of Partition. It's a rare bad decision by Khan, cluttering a key sequence with depressingly literal symbolism.

Chandu Champion is an unabashed tearjerker, which is hardly surprising if you've followed Khan's career since Bajrangi Bhaijaan. The moral lessons can get dreary, like when the sports federation rejects Murli for the 1972 Olympics and are chastised by him and then by a peon (Hindi films have discovered a new kind of kryptonite: scenes involving clueless sports officials). The scenes set in 2017, with an old Murali petitioning the government and a journalist trying to tell his story for the first time, don't have the verve of the ones from decades earlier. Yet, for the first time since Bajrangi, Khan manages to sweep the viewer along.

Aaryan has made a career out of playing callow smartasses. It's a pleasant surprise, then, to see how well he fits in the simpler skin of Murli, and how appealing the character is. It's a bit surreal to see Aaryan play someone whose journey through life is compared to the arc of independent India. Then again, as the past few weeks have shown, India is often surprising and rarely boring.

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First Published:14 Jun 2024, 11:51 AM IST
HomeLoungeart and culture‘Chandu Champion’ review: Kartik Aaryan powers satisfying tearjerker

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