Our mythology is dotted with gender-fluid tales, and our laws have begun to respect sexual diversity, but our mainstream Hindi cinema continues to narrate love stories that are as ramrod-straight as Manu Munjal, the protagonist of Abhishek Kapoor’s latest leap of faith. An unconventional love story set in the hotbed of masculinity, it is essentially a case study of a man and a woman who are struggling inside the bodies that nature has allotted them.
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Manu (Ayushmann Khurrana), a bodybuilder and fitness trainer, seeks to get over his diffident past, when he was bullied after his mother's demise, to build the best body in town, but his softcore refuses to crystallise.
A Zumba instructor, Manvi Brar (Vaani Kapoor) has sought to align her anatomy with her personal sense of her gender, but scars inflicted upon her by family members and society continue to haunt her.
As Manvi attempts to bring some rhythm to the muscleman, sparks fly, but Manu’s social grooming — which reflects the conditioning of a large section of the audience as well — doesn’t allow him to see that both he and Manavi are sailing in the same boat and complete each other.
Even as they bond and spar to the hormone-rushing music of Sachin-Jigar, the film consistently asks what constitutes the normal. Manu’s widowed father (Girish Dhamija) is in an inter-faith relationship, that he has hidden from his family, because he feels they can’t process it. Manu’s English lacks inflections, but he aspires for a well-groomed girl, and Manvi sees a soft soul beneath his crude behaviour.
Indeed, Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui pitches a forward-looking idea and starts a conversation whose time has come. After Kai Po Che and Kedarnath , Abhishek once again pushes the envelope but this time the resolution is convenient and predictable.
Early in the film, we are told that money is not an issue with Manvi; this takes away the emotional turmoil and economic cost that the gender reassignment surgery, without which the story could not be held, entails. The medical aspect of the complex process is barely touched upon. Of course, it is a conversation starter, but instead, in the guise of the breezy mainstream romance with a message, it seems the makers are selling the benefits of cosmetic surgery to unsuspecting youth.
Except for Kanwaljit Singh, as the retired brigadier father of Manvi, the supporting characters fizzle out, after providing a few laughs. The character arc of the sisters of Manu, who are insistent on bringing a fair and beautiful conventional bahu , is disappointing too.
The crackling chemistry between Ayushmann and Vaani, however, ensures that the luscious romance seeps through the screen, and paper over the cracks that appear in the script in the second half.
As the self-suspecting and sassy Manvi, Vaani is a revelation. Rendering a hint of hoarseness to her voice, she deftly etches the confidence and complexes of a girl who loves the mirror, but whose eyes go blank in the midst of a conversation. It is her credible performance that helps us in configuring the backstory of Manvi.
Once against playing imperfection with conviction, Ayushmann shines as a Jatt boy who grapples with his social bias. For once, he gets an opportunity to flaunt a rippled body along with his acting chops and Ayushmann doesn’t disappoint on both counts.
When Manu punches above his weight in the finale, the commentator likens it to lifting the Sanjeevani. It indeed is, for it is a symbol of lifting centuries of misconceptions and prejudices. Reality will kick in later!
Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui is currently running in theatres