As she tells him what many of us have already guessed, he stands before her bare-chested, his brawniness on partial display.
It’s an apt moment for revelation in a movie that revolves around bodily transformation. Gym owner and bodybuilder Manu (Ayushmann Khurrana) and Zumba trainer Maanvi (Vaani Kapoor) are a match made in heaven. The sex is good, even better than normal, Manu says (whatever that means).
It’s balle-balle all the way until Maanvi throws a googly: she is a trans woman. This is a massive update on the Hindi films of yore, in which heroines would conceal their pasts (an old boyfriend, a forced marriage) minutes before the interval.
Abhishek Kapoor’s Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui is a thoughtful and often carefully plotted exploration of prejudice against assigned gender identity. Using the devices of the average mainstream Hindi movie – soft-focus glamour, choreographed songs, a loud and quirky family, situational humour – the movie comes out in support of people who dare to break out of the boxes into which they have been trapped since birth. The decision to use a bankable non-trans actor to play a trans woman is presumably part of the conceit.
The clash between orthodoxy and free will is based on a story idea by Simran Sahni. Kapoor and screenwriters Supratik Sen and Tushar Paranjape simplify the complexities of transgender identity to the extent that is possible in a movie of this nature. Manu predictably reacts with disgust and refuses to accept Maanvi on her own terms. Firm on her choices and comfortable in her skin, Maanvi deflects Manu’s rage with calm and dignity.
The social messaging is urgent but rarely preachy. Except for a latter section that drags on longer than it should, Abhishek Kapoor deftly and smoothly rolls out the miracles that love makes possible.
While Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui seeks to normalise Manu’s crisis – one of his big fights with Maanvi takes place in the children’s section of a mall – the 117-minute movie also soft-pedals some of the important challenges faced by people who want to transition.
Unlike Hitesh Kewalya’s Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan (2020), in which Ayushmann Khurrana and Jitendra Kumar played a gay couple, Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui takes some convenient short-cuts on its road to subversion.
Maanvi’s apparent affluence removes money as one of the biggest obstacles for people who have to undergo numerous and complex surgeries. Manu’s own family, which appears to be equally wealthy, is too comical for their protests to be taken seriously.
By making Maanvi conform to the typical image of the Hindi film heroine, the film risks setting up a burdensome expectation even as it demolishes others. The curvy and cleavage-revealing Maanvi looks every inch a supermodel, with the camera sometimes actively highlighting her physical attributes.
Would Manu have fallen for Maanvi if she had been less conventionally attractive? In what turns out to be a battle between hypermasculinity and hyperfemininity, the question is never answered suitably.
The film scores in other ways. It is leagues ahead of the insensitively handled MX Player series Pati Patni aur Panga (2020), which played transitioning for laughs, and very nicely performed too.
Ayushmann Khurrana is a good fit as the bulked-up Manu, but the real surprise is Vaani Kapoor. She has never been trusted with so much heavy-duty material in the past, and she delivers in full.
Mukesh Chhabra’s casting ensures that the well-matched leads are surrounded by well-chosen actors. Manu’s family includes two bossy sisters (Tanya Abrol and Sawan Rupowali). Manu’s friends are superbly played by the identical twins Goutam and Gourav Sharma. As Maanvi’s father, Kanwaljit Singh has a short but impactful role.