In 1972, Murlikant Petkar won India’s first-ever gold medal in any Olympic event. Petkar, who was paralysed from the waist down, got the medal for 50-metre freestyle swimming at the Paralympics.

Kabir Khan’s Chandu Champion pays fulsome tribute to this pioneer. Chandu Champion, led by a superb Kartik Aaryan, is a solidly crafted biopic that overcomes patches of melodrama and clumsy plotting to deliver an emotionally resonant chronicle of individual courage.

The fictionalised account begins in 2017. An elderly Murlikant (Aaryan) wants to file a police complaint against successive Indian presidents who have denied him the Arjuna Award, India’s second-highest sports honour. The police inspector (Shreyas Talpade) scoffs at Murlikant, who then proceeds to reveal his back story.

The framing device creates an unfair image of Murlikant as embittered and grasping. The man we encounter over 143 minutes is anything but that.

Murlikant’s boyhood hero is Dara Singh. Murlikant is all set to follow in the wrestler’s footsteps until fate intervenes.

Murlikant enlists in the Army, where he emerges as a promising boxer under the tough-love tutelage of coach Ali (Vijay Raaz). A severe injury during the 1965 Indo-Pak War – filmed in a single shot – is a setback that Murlikant overcomes in the only way he knows to: by beginning all over again.

Persistence is the key element in Khan’s screenplay, written with Sumit Arora and Sudipto Sarkar. Forever missing his shot at glory just when it appears to be within reach, Murlikant simply refuses to give up.

He is never alone. The film rolls out a series of warmly observed secondary characters who boost Murlikant’s mission and stand in for the family that has all but abandoned him.

In Islampur village in rural Maharashtra, Ganpat (Ganesh Yadav) gives a young Murlikant (Aayan Khan) his first shot at wrestling. Karnail (Bhuvan Arora) is responsible for Murlikant joining the Army.

Yashpal Shama hilariously parodies the hard-driving, eardrum-shattering drill instructor. Vijay Raaz’s Ali is a dream coach, reappearing after Murlikant’s disability to lick him back into shape. Rajpal Yadav and Brijendra Kala play members of the chorus singing Murlikant’s praises.

Sarphira, Chandu Champion (2024).

There is carnivalesque joy but also lapses into the loud, cartoonish humour that marked Khan’s previous film 83 (2021), about the Indian cricket’s team first World Cup victory. There are occasions when the overly long Chandu Champion wanders beyond the syllabus.

The movie paradoxically glosses over the core of Murlikant’s achievement – the overcoming of his disability. A lecture by Ali to Murlikant that he is no different from any other athlete doesn’t quite cut it.

In trying to normalise para-athletes – a wonderful thing in itself – the film’s makers skim over the challenges involved in retraining the body to perform new miracles. The other contestants at the Paralympics rush by in a hurried montage, without giving a measure of what is at stake.

What Khan does well is to reveal the man behind the medal. Through his travails, Murlikant never loses his boyishness, innocence or charisma.

Khan deftly channels Kartik Aaryan’s youthful ardour, Easter bunny grin and belligerent screen persona. Murlikant is striving, monomaniacal and hot-headed – all qualities associated with Aaryan’s characters, and never projected as well before than by this movie.

Khan is altogether in more control of his narrative than in 83, an endearing entertainer that was nevertheless weighted down by avoidable bloat. Both films share a love for underdogs who transform themselves into thoroughbreds through sheer willpower. Chandu Champion includes a nod to Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (2013), in which Murlikant encounters his past while dealing with his present.

Chandu Champion works even without the heavy underlining, in no small part because of handsome production values. Cinematographer Sudeep Chatterjee dunks his frames in saturated hues that reflect Murlikant’s journey from a dust-laden akhara to the gold-paved Paralympics.

Some of the most affectionate portions are in Islampur, where Murlikant first dreams of triumphing in the Olympics. In a sequence beautifully edited by Nitin Baid, Murlikant wrestles, runs, swims, and runs again as he flees his village.

Few moments in Chandu Champion lay out Murlikant’s physical prowess alongside his ability to reinvent himself as his first big adventure. Much is said in Chandu Champion about the triumph of the spirit, but when Khan dials down the speechifying and relies on the visuals, the movie soars.

Chandu Champion (2024).

Also read:

Know Your Legend: Before Abhinav Bindra and Devendra Jhajharia, there was Murlikant Petkar

‘An incredibly important story to tell’: Kabir Khan on Murlikant Petkar biopic ‘Chandu Champion’