‘Chandu Champion’ review: Kabir Khan’s worst film to date showcases Kartik Aaryan’s inability to act

There’s an unwritten but abiding contract that we, the audience, have with sports films.

Good sports films move the audience. Even if it’s for a short duration— during the film and its afterglow that can last from 24 hours to a few weeks—sports films are meant to stir us into thinking that we too can realise our impossible dreams.  Often it is a delusion because real inspiration comes from within, not outside. 

But for a while, good sports films pack in moments of such piercing focus that they move us into believing that we too can conquer new heights, and become masters of our own destinies. We lose this determination soon after. But like those drop-down masks on flights,  good sports films remain the go-to oxygen masks that we can pull down and put on when we can’t breathe.

And that’s really just it. That’s the only real point of sporting films, whether they are based on real-life heroes or imagined ones. Kabir  Khan made one such film in 2020, Ranveer Singh-starrer, ’83. Chandu  Champion is Khan’s second attempt at showcasing sporting glory.

Based on the life of Murlikant  Rajaram Petkar, India’s first Paralympic gold medalist, the material that Khan and his co-writers — Sumit Arora, Sudipto Sarkar — had was powerful. Petkar’s life story is the stuff of legends, a saga of unbelievable tragedy and human grit.  It’s the story of a man who was laughed at, shot at, paralysed for life, but refused to give up.

Sadly, Chandu Champion, starring  Kartik Aaryan, is a soul-sucking, cliche-riddled dullard. It is Khan’s worst film to date starring a wimp of an actor when what it needed was a warrior.

The only inspiration that can be drawn from Chandu Champion is about how not to write a screenplay, and the only lesson it delivers quite emphatically is for  Bollywood: Do cast Karthik Aaryan in a role that demands some acting.

Aaryan has risen to fame and box-office glory by being a boys’ boy. Chandu Champion required him to inhabit and play a character who is not an annoying mohalla boy, who does not flash a toothy grin while being crass and misogynistic. 

As  Murli, Kartik Aaryan’s body changes shape and bulk. Sometimes he sprints and sometimes he swims. He is good at boxing and his wrestling is passable.

In fact, in some sporting arenas, he delivers the physical action decently, but all the drama is neck down. Above that is the same Kartik Aaryan with his two-and-a-half expressions—happy with a toothy smile, sad with dead eyes, and sad with teary eyes.

Between the film’s tired, tedious screenplay, Khan’s uninspired direction and Aaryan’s inability to act, it is difficult to decide who should be held guilty of killing what could have been an exciting, inspiring film.

All are culpable.

Chandu Champion opens with a war  scene. We hear the rat-a-tat-tat of machine guns, see debris flying aesthetically and watch a soldier shout and get shot at.

This was 1965. The war was with  Pakistan. 

Cut to 2017, a police station in  Sangli, a city in Maharashtra where there’s commotion around an old man in a brown coat who has arrived with a bunch of medals and is insisting on filing a cheating case against all of India’s past Presidents, beginning with V.V. Giri. 

As he lays down his gold, silver,  et cetra medals on the SHO’s table, the cops first joke about the senile “Kaka”,  but are soon engrossed in his life’s story.

Flashback. Cut to 1952, in a village in Maharashtra where a young boy, Murli, watches India’s first Olympic medalist, K.D. Jadhav, being welcomed by thousands of people on his return from Helsinki. 

The freestyle wrestler won the bronze medal and spawned a million dreams, including of little Murli who announces that he too will be an Olympic champion. Murli tries his hand at wrestling, but bullies at school tease him and start calling him “Chandu” Champion, Chandu for loser.

He grows up and we meet Murli in an akhara (wrestling arena) wearing what looks like a thick maroon diaper. This is soon followed by him running away from a killer mob in the same diaper. 

He gets on to a train, makes a friend, Karnail (Bhuvan Arora), they sing a song and join the Army. Again the film focuses on portraying Murli as a cute simpleton who gets triggered when people laugh at his Olympic dreams. But he finds a senior who believes in him, and introduces him to Tiger Ali (Vijay Raaz), a boxing coach.

The film spends a long time in  Japan where military games are taking place. Here Murli meets a female TV  reporter (a boring role that’s a waste of Bhagyashri Borse’s charm), tastes some fame and gets a life lesson from a miffed Ali.

Again a considerable amount of time is wasted on portraying Murli as a cute simpleton who can’t use a fork and knife, can’t speak or understand English. 

This infantilising runs throughout the film, turning Murli into a joke. The aim, perhaps, was to get a few laughs. And thanks to Bhuvan Arora’s Karnail, we do chuckle a bit. But the overall impact is of distancing us from Murli, not bringing us close to him.

Soon we are back to Kashmir, 1965.  Shooting, death, a bullet lodged in the spine, coma and then paralysis.

This is a deeply tragic episode in  Murli’s life and involves a family that walks away from him. It has some powerful scenes and all eyes are on Kartik Aaryan. But all we get are those same stock expressions, interspersed with blank looks.

In the last 10 minutes of ‘Chandu  Champion’, filmy melodrama and real-life achievements of an exceptional man mingle to lift the film a bit. But it’s too little, too late.

Murlikant Rajaram Petkar’s life story is so action-packed and inspiring that there really wasn’t much to do for the scriptwriters. And yet the film’s writers and director have managed to drag down a moving, energising story with cliches and dead scenes.

The film does have some excellent boxing scenes that are directed, shot, edited and acted well. 

These sporting sequences, including one in a swimming pool, are like small pockets of tension and excitement that Aaryan could have turned into moments when we connect with Murli and his single-minded pursuit of Olympic gold. Instead, he makes us wonder about his lack of acting skills.

The film has a very decent ensemble of supporting actors, but they have not been given characters to play.  All their roles — from the SHO to wrestling guru, Army commander to best friend,  hospital ward boy to boxing coach — are one-note reduced to caricatures. But  Shreyas Talpade, Yashpal Sharma, Bhuvan Arora and Vijay Raaz give their characters some humanity and don’t let them sink.

In  Chandu Champion, Kartik Aaryan gets to do a lot—wrestle, box, run,  lose his leg, swim. He gets several closeups, long moments when he can forge a connection with us, communicate with us, make us feel the sublime,  transcendental quality of Murli’s determination. But there is not a single moment where Murli’s excellence or grit is communicated to us properly. 

The only place where there’s a touch of authenticity in Aaryan’s acting is when he plays the old Murli at the police station. And that’s because his face is covered with heavy prosthetics and his expression is frozen into that of dignified outrage. Perhaps they should have done this in the rest of the film— frozen Aaryan’s face into that of a champion.

Film: Chandu Champion

Cast: Kartik Aaryan, Bhuvan Arora, Vijay Raaz, Yashpal Sharma, Rajpal Yadav, Shreyas Talpade, Sonali Kulkarni, Bhagyashri Borse

Direction: Kabir Khan

Rating: 2/5