Chandu Champion
Chandu Champion Image Credit: Supplied

Everybody loves a good underdog tale, and actor Kartik Aaryan-led Chandu Champion is all about milking that sentiment. Does it get exploitative? Yes. But do you mind being manipulated? No.

Perhaps, it’s because the lead actor gives it his all in breathing life into India’s obscure but heroic real-life Paralympic champion, Murlikant Petkar, who made his country proud by bringing home an Olympic gold medal in the 500-meter swimming event.

Plus, Petkar was the first Indian to win an individual gold medal in the 1972 Summer Paralympics with all odds stacked against him, and director Kabir Khan is careful about corralling together nuggets from his life that are designed to endear him to us.

Chandu Champion
Kartik Aaryan pours life into 'Chandu Champion'

The movie opens with scenes that are overdramatic, featuring an ageing Petkar with a questionable silver wig, at a police station reminiscing about his troubled childhood and his remarkable life.

The first few scenes take us back to his troubled childhood, where he’s bullied by his father and his nasty peers who mock him for his dreams of winning an Olympic gold for his country. He’s called a loser and is pushed to the fringes by a system that’s designed to ridicule anything that’s ambitious or unfamiliar. Pushed by his elder brother, he joins a wrestling camp in his village but finds himself driven out of it because he dared to win against a fellow wrestler/nepo kid of a village chieftain. He then joins the army, hoping to follow the likes of India’s famous sprinter Milkha Singh and get his foot into the Olympic race.

The first hour of the film is likely to make you restless as you feel that the film is putting you through the same paces as oft-made Bollywood biopics. Sad childhood with a strict dad to boot, zero support system, but a steely spine and iron will to see the subjects through to the finish line. But what adds grit to this guts and glory biopic is when Petkar gets critically injured while on the battlefield, riddled with nine bullets.

The movie picks up pace and traction from that point. Till then, it’s all about setting the field in a syrupy, benign manner. Just like how the audience may take time to warm up to Petkar’s magnificently brave life, Aaryan comes into his own after he takes a near-fatal hit while on army duty.

Chandu Champion
Aaryan gives it his all in 'Chandu Champion'

Credit is due to actor Vijay Raaz, who plays his tough mentor and life coach with such conviction and gravitas. The scene in which Raaz tells a disillusioned and paraplegic Petkar that he can still compete in the Paralympics, and Aaryan looking understandably exasperated at his suggestion, strikes a chord. But such scenes come far too late into the film. The scenes where he is undergoing a traumatic phase after learning that he may be permanently disabled and resorting to self-harm seemed hurried. Just as we were about to see conflict and complex emotions in an ex-army man, we are hurriedly shoved towards his redemption. But what makes the film compelling is the realization that Petkar’s life was eventful, extraordinary, and rocky.

Here’s a man who survived nine bullets (with one still lodged in his spine), a terror attack, and a skimpy support system to bring home Olympic glory. When it comes to acting and transforming into an athlete who’s often lost and desperate, Aaryan shines in those scenes.

The emotionally-charged scenes like the one where he charges ahead despite a possible head injury are wonderfully acted and rendered. The movie soars when you see a bunch of the world’s best specially-abled swimmers giving it their all. Those laps are swiftly handled but drive home the urgency and evoke incredible euphoria. But the scenes where they try to add mirth and levity to his life, think Rajpal Yadav as this buffoonish hustler, seem forced. But that isn’t a deal breaker.

The extraordinary life of Petkar has enough meat for a compelling biopic, despite the rocky start.

GN Star Rating:
Film: Chandu Champion
Director: Kabir Khan
Cast: Kartik Aaryan, Vijay Raaz, Rajpal Yadav
Stars: 3 out of 5