The sports drama based on Paralympic Gold Medalist Murlikant Petkar relies heavily on the biopic template. But it has enough and more nuances to make for an endearing watch

Kabir Khan's Chandu Champion starts with a scene in a police station. Shreyas Talpade is Inspector Sachin Kamble and opposite him sits an aged man, accompanied by his young son, named Murlikant Petkar who wants to file a complaint against the President of India himself. The reason? He wants the coveted Arjuna Award to his name but the actual reason he withholds is that he wants to attract development — better roads, facilities and stuff — for his Maharashtrian town of Islampur. But before all that, and if Kamble were to even begin considering lodging that complaint, he must first find out who this man is and why neither he nor his entire station (including a couple of constables and a hand-cuffed thief) have an iota of knowledge about him.

What ensues is a conversation that quickly translates into a long flashback full of vignettes, full of this-happened-that-happened scenes. An Arjuna Award only implies that Murli Petkar was an achiever in sports at one point but Kabir Khan and his co-writers Sumit Arora and Sudipto Sen don’t seem too keen on making the sport, itself, the point of focus. It’s the person, the forgotten soul in our history annals, who is important, they say. How come the guy — a Paralympian and a Gold medalist, who served the Indian Army and took nine bullets in his body in 1965 only to be left paralyzed from waist below, who represented India in not one but different sporting disciplines, and who the Army too had almost misplaced in a dust-laden filing cabinet until a journalist dug up something about him only 6-7 years ago — remains a stranger to so many of us?

Kartik Aaryan packs a punch

Well, the reasons could be plenty but the need of the hour, just as in every biopic, is to tell everyone that someone like this existed among us and deserves a film of their own. Chandu Champion is just that exclamation that lasts close to two-and-a-half hours. But while the sentiment behind its making is to be praised, Kabir Khan and his co-writers somehow restrict themselves to a portrait that is bright and vibrant, no doubt, but ultimately conceived with broad strokes alone. This is a film that tugs at our heartstrings on several occasions but only by playing a little too safe and never really realizing the essence that this remarkable tale carries underneath.

That doesn’t mean that Chandu Champion isn’t engaging, and given that Kartik Aaryan submits himself completely to a demanding role, there's quite a bit to savour here. For instance, the one-take war scene that’s straight up Kabir Khan’s alley and is nearly as vivid and as tantalizing as some of the best work worldwide. Or take the small scene close to the climax of the film when Murli, submerged in a swimming pool during his training, is told by his coach Tiger Ali (Vijay Raaz) that he will be a Paralympian after all, as many other paraplegics witness the moment and join in on the celebration.

There’s another scene in which a young Murli bests a Kushti player back in his village and is forced to flee while still in his Langot, literally swimming his way towards freedom. Kabir Khan's best work, especially Bajrangi Bhaijaan (2015), often rides on platitudes but he carries sufficient restraint as a filmmaker that his epic moments are also endearing at the same time, without turning bombastic just to play to the gallery. And Chandu Champion, despite the shortcomings, has many of those small, feather-light touches we know him for; Kartik Aaryan, too, subscribes to this ethos and delivers possibly a career-best performance while at it.

Surface appreciation

Where the problem really occurred to me was when Khan announced vehemently that he was going to stick to a now-worn-out template from start to finish. A biopic, particularly in India, is being rendered more and more redundant because of its sheer mass production. More importantly, it is because filmmakers have this inexplicable desire to simply recount a real-life story in a chosen visual template and never to dig deep into the subtext of that story.

Murli Petkar is a driven man to win an Olympic Gold for India and he leaves his family behind for many years together to chase that dream — but we never see how that decision shapes his adulthood. Murli, as the boxing champ of the future, makes a big blunder ahead of a big game and forgoes a chance to represent India at the Olympics — but we don’t feel the weight of that decision on him as we see him grow older and struggle with life. We don’t see why his best friend in the Army is also an up-and-coming boxer but he conveniently becomes a sidekick and wants to only support Murli’s dream now. We don’t see why the guy hates the sound of laughter or being ridiculed for his mighty dreams (‘Chandu’ means to be a loser here). We don’t see or figure out, either, why or how sporting icons in India are treated with such indignity and callousness that it takes a mainstream film to highlight their pursuits.

Instead, Chandu Champion is a bit of a wishy-washy effort that doesn’t dare enough to enter the protagonist’s psyche because it feels that the Indian viewer has time to appreciate only the contours of a story or a character. Almost every decision here — from the montage songs, the lush cinematography and the slightly exaggerated performances to the monologue-heavy, micro-episodic nature of the screenplay — seems to stem from that apprehension. At one point, when the narrative cut to the scene in the police station, I almost wished for Shreyas Talpade to turn to Kartik Aaryan to say: “There’s more than one way to make a sports film and stir up emotions — remember this film called Iqbal?”

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