The light touch and the heavy hand are both at play in Nitesh Tiwari’s Chhichhore. The movie begins as a rambunctious college campus comedy, quickly moves into the sentimental family drama zone, returns for the fun and games, shifts back into tear-jerking territory, and finally runs out of breath with only some of its ambitions realised.
The haring around over 146 minutes produces many hilarious and unvarnished views of college life, more humour about underwear than anyone has seen before, some nifty character sketches, and the paradoxical message that it is only human to fail despite trying for many interminable minutes to succeed.
The idea that it is what is on the inside that counts sometimes takes vivid form. The sight of the inmates of a hostel at an engineering college scampering around the grounds and drenching one another in water while clad only in their briefs is likely to linger in memory, and not always in a pleasant way.
In the present, many years after that bawdy night some time in 1992, one of the aforementioned underclad men is grappling with a suicide attempt by his son. Anni (Sushant Singh Rajput) and his wife Maya (Shraddha Kapoor) were both academic achievers, which pushes the underperforming Raghav to the edge. As Raghav hovers between life and death, Anni has a brainwave – why not marshal the healing powers of storytelling and organise a college reunion right there outside the intensive care unit?
Might not Raghav, whose prognosis gets more dire with every passing day, be encouraged by the real story behind why his parents and their friends were known as “losers” in college? Raghav’s blood pressure fluctuates dangerously when Anni begins to spin his yarn, but medical accuracy isn’t on this movie’s list of achievements.
What works best for the nostalgia-flecked Chhichhore is its warm and non-judgemental evocation of the wonder years. The earnest Anni arrives at a college modelled on the Indian Institute of Technology and learns that he has been assigned to Hostel Number 4. This is where the “losers” are dumped. Although Anni initially attempts to move out, he soon succumbs to its charms.
The charms have telling nicknames. They include Playboy magazine’s most ardent reader Sexa (Varun Sharma), the cossetted Mummy (Tushar Pandey), the profanity-spouting Acid (Naveen Polishetty) and the moody Derek (Tahir Raj Bhasin). The gorgeous Maya (Shraddha Kapoor), described as the Halley’s Comet of the campus, is the only female element in the mix.
Anni soon becomes fast friends with this unlikely lot. The camaraderie comes handy when Hostel No 4 decides to shed its sad-sack reputation and defeat a superior team of athletes led by Raggie (Prateik) in a sports competition. Raggie is to this movie what Deepak Tijori was in Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar – the arrogant overachiever who treats the games like the Olympics and displays Narcos-level evil in his efforts.
Although the movie peddles the message that students should be liberated from the requirement to excel, Chhicchore becomes as obsessed with the games as Sexa is with his centrefolds. One-third of Chhicchore is dedicated to the contest between unequals, but the best bits have already gone by.
Another student joins the gang almost as an afterthought – the liquor-loving Bevda (Saharsh Shukla). Bevda is introduced after the interval, and since the screenplay by Tiwari, Piyush Gupta and Nikhil Mehrotra is aware of its contrivances, he is accompanied by the observation that he has been written out of the story thus far.
Bevda isn’t the only student who looks as old as one of his teachers. In the interests of assembling a diverse cast, Tiwari has recruited actors across age groups. The same actors play their older selves with the help of prosthetics and make-up, but none of them is convincing. Maya appears to have aged about a week, and Anni’s salt-and-pepper hair and Sexa’s faked baldness are distractions at best.
The actors are most effective in their younger avatars. Varun Sharma is wild and appropriate as Sexa, who has a cute name for his penis. Naveen Polishetty, Tahir Raj Bhasin and Tushar Pandey are also in fine form. Sushant Singh Rajput sheds his swagger and fits snugly into the role of the bumbling Anni. Shraddha Kapoor is a radiant presence, and Prateik sharpens his recently acquired villainous persona as the scheming Raggie.
Chhicchore sets itself up as the obverse of Tiwari’s 2016 blockbuster Dangal, in which a determined father projects his ambition onto his reluctant daughters and pushes them to their limits while training them to be wrestlers. It’s worth the sweat and tears, Dangal suggests: one of the daughters brings India glory, proving that her seemingly monstrous father had been right all along.
Achievement, victory and validation are also on the minds of the characters in Chhichore, with starkly different results. However, since the message that it’s alright to fail is delivered by students of one of the country’s most prestigious institutions, it rings about as true as the concern over Raghav’s precarious condition.
A few years before this movie’s 1992 setting came one of the best take-downs of the preoccupation with empty degrees and nonsensical rankings. Pradeep Krishen’s In Which Annie Gives it Those Ones (1989), written by Arundhati Roy, celebrates the chaos and comedy of campus existence. Set in an architecture college and featuring a superbly observed cross-section of ne’er-do-wells, In Which Annie Gives It Those Ones is as laidback and wise as Chhicchore is hardworking and prosaic.
In the 2019 movie in which Anni tries to give it those ones, the most powerful and memorable moments are all in the past, which is seething with fashion-backward college students, affection-laced jousting, and a love for slapstick and hyperbole. The real Chhicchore should never have left the campus.