In Abhishek Kapoor’s Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui, gym owner and fitness freak Manu is smitten the second he lays eyes on Zumba trainer Maanvi. His feelings are reciprocated, leading to a whirlwind romance. There are early hints that Maanvi is a trans woman. When Manu find out, his conventional – and dated – definition of gender identity causes a rift in the relationship.

The December 10 release is based on a story idea by Simran Sahni, It stars Ayushmann Khurrana as Manu and Vaani Kapoor as Maanvi. Abhishek Kapoor has co-written the screenplay along with Supratik Sen and Tushar Paranjape.

Abhishek Kapoor has been delighted by the reaction from the critics. “I have never had a response like that for any of my films,” said the director of Rock On!!, Kai Po Che! and Kedarnath. “This one is really special.”

Among those who praised the film on social media was trans screenwriter Gazal Dhaliwal. In a lengthy and thoughtful Instagram post, Dhaliwal wrote, “There are so many nuances of the life of a trans person that it gets right. The self-doubt, the self-confidence, the insecurities, the hopes, the loneliness, the inexplicable anxiety of falling in love, and the absolute grit.”

Dhaliwal confronted the question that has dogged the movie since its casting was announced: should Maanvi have been played an actual trans woman? “...At this stage, whatever it takes to bring out trans stories, I’m on board,” Dhaliwal said.

Kapoor clarified that the intent was to “make a film from the outside” by using the attractions available to a topflight production of this nature – light comedy, a quirky family, a soundtrack by Sachin-Jigar, and a glamorous heroine in the form of Vaani Kapoor.

“I am not trying to make an arthouse film that few people will share but that has no actual contribution to society,” Abhishek Kapoor told “You have to be practical. This isn’t the best, of course. I did toy with the idea of casting a trans person but I didn’t think the message would come across in the way I intended.”

The movie wears its social messaging about accepting transgender persons lightly, which was the intention, Kapoor said.

“I wanted to tell people the story in the language they would understand,” he added. “The voice that comes from the other side often comes as a screech to the mainstream and they shut it out. The conversation needs to be in their language, so they can talk and understand. Once people understand, they will accept it and you will have trans people making movies. But you have to get there first. You can’t put the cart before the horse.”

Ayushmann Khurrana and Vaani Kapoor in Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui (2021). Courtesy Guy in the Sky/T-Series.

An assistant director who had transitioned into a woman also set Kapoor thinking about how people take their assigned genders for granted. “My mind and my body are in sync, and I don’t even think about it,” Kapoor said. “When someone says my mind and body are not in sync, I cannot even imagine the entrapment there.”

Among Kapoor’s challenges was striking the right note between humour and sobriety, conveying Maanvi’s determination to be accepted on her own terms with Manu’s dismay at her reality.

“This is a tightrope walk – if you are too funny, you are making fun of them [the trans community], and if you are too serious, you are alienating the audience,” Kapoor said. “So one had to be aware. You’re like a family member between two family members who don’t understand each other. You are that person trying to bring them together. You have to walk that line and be respectful of both. Only then will the conversation will complete. Then you have to part to let them mull over it, which is the stage we are at.”

The movie’s biggest surprise is Vaani Kapoor, who delivers a sensitive and dignified performance. Kapoor’s Maanvi is never ashamed of who she is or was and calmly faces Manu’s fulminations and her own family’s putdowns.

Tumbe Te Zumba, Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui (2021).

“I definitely wanted Vaani to play Maanvi as dignified and gracious,” Abhishek Kapoor said. “She has her boundaries, and she knows how to take care of herself. The greatness of her character is that despite all that she has been through, she retains her dignity. You don’t want to lose that, otherwise you will have nothing to fight for. If you are angry and enraged, they have taken away what is important to you. I thought it was very important for her to definitely not be the victim.”

Vaani Kapoor, who made her debut in Shuddh Desi Romance in 2014, wasn’t cast because of any of her previous roles, none of which have been noteworthy.

“For a part like this, I know that it would be an ordeal for successful mainstream heroines,” Abhishek Kapoor said. “You had to find someone with the potential, who could take the leap. You identify certain actors who are at that right stage. I found Vaani to be perfectly poised. Ayushmann too nudged me in that direction. I sent her the script. If there had been even the slightest hesitation, I would not have cast her. At the very first reading she said, I love it, if you’re directing it, I am doing it. And that was that.”

It could have gone badly, “all wrong Pete Tong”, Abhishek Kapoor added. “The trust factor was very important,” he said. “I respected that Vaani had the courage to come on board, and it was my duty to see that she sailed across.”

Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui (2021).

Also read:

‘Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui’ review: A thoughtful drama about a bodybuilder’s love for a trans woman