SPOILER ALERT for those who have not seen the film “Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui.”
Bollywood A-lister Ayushmann Khurrana headlines the cast of transgender-themed romance “Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui,” which is currently on release worldwide.
Across Indian cinema as a whole, trans characters have been portrayed sensitively as leads of films like “Daayra” (1996) “Tamanna” (1998), “Just Another Love Story” (2010), “Nanu Avanalla Avalu” (2015), “Njan Marykutty” (2018) and “Super Deluxe” (2019). However their representation in mainstream commercial Bollywood cinema veers between villainous characters, like Sadashiv Amrapurkar’s Maharani in “Sadak” (1991), and crude comedy parts. “Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui” is unique in that it brings a trans character to the fore in Bollywood.
Khurrana plays Manvinder Munjal, a macho gym instructor in the northern Indian city of Chandigarh, who is smitten with Maanvi Brar, a Zumba teacher who shares his work space. They consummate their relationship and decide to get married when Maanvi reveals that she used to be a man and has undergone gender reassignment surgery. Manvinder must now deal with his own inhibitions and the jibes of insensitive friends and family.
“We need to see this film from an Indian perspective, where the society is very complex,” Khurrana told Variety. “Indians in general, they don’t even know the meaning of trans. They have no idea that, if you feel like a girl and if you’re born in a boy’s body, you can actually become a girl – they’re alien to this subject.”
“In an ideal world, of course, there has to be representation, and a trans actor should be playing on screen the character of Maanvi, but having said that, it’s a great first step in commercial Hindi cinema, because we’ve come a long way from Maharani’s character in the 1990s to Maanvi’s character in 2021,” said Khurrana. “It’s a great conversation starter and this will bring about that change in future that whatever piece of art or cinema is coming out, they need to cast a trans actor.”
The actor who plays Maanvi in the film is Vaani Kapoor, who debuted with “Shuddh Desi Romance” (2013) and has featured in a string of hits since. “Vaani is a very sensitive human being and it is not just about expressing in front of the camera, it comes from your worldview. Also, it comes from within, how deeply you feel for the community, because if you have not experienced that in real life, it is difficult for a cis het female to showcase that on screen,” said Kapoor. “This was the author-backed role she was waiting for. She’s done a great job and she will be remembered for this film.”
Khurrana is well familiar with the transgender community as the school that he went to, St. John’s High School in Chandigarh, helps transgender students. And Panjab University, Chandigarh, where the star did a master’s degree was one of the first Indian universities to install separate toilets for transgender people.
“Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui” is co-written and directed by Abhishek Kapoor, a filmmaker known for telling sensitive stories within a commercial milieu including “Rock On!!” (2008), “Kai Po Che” (2013) and “Kedarnath” (2018). The character brief that Kapoor gave Khurrana was that of a patriarchal alpha male who is born with a certain mindset and is regressive, but has a soft core, which helps him transform.
“That was the representation he wanted me to have — how a common man in our country who’s regressive will react when he gets to know that his girlfriend used to be a guy. ” said Khurrana.
During the course of the film, Manvinder’s attitude gradually changes as he researches the transgender community. “It was very important for the character to do the research himself, because I think it just sends out the message to the community that they owe us nothing, they don’t have to teach us anything,” said Khurrana. “The onus lies on people who are in a privileged position to do the research and learn about transgenders.”
“Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui” is the latest film in which Khurrana does not play a conventional Bollywood hero. Khurrana has made a point of playing diverse characters, and each of them have been box-office successes. These include playing a sperm donor in 2012’s “Vicky Donor”; a man who suffers from erectile dysfunction in 2017’s “Shubh Mangal Savdhan”; an alopecia sufferer in 2019’s “Bala”; and an out and proud gay man in “Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan” (2020).
“For me, the first criteria has to be a new subject, a novel idea, and there has to be some kind of value addition via films,” said Khurrana. “I think there’s a certain responsibility as an artist and you should give something progressive and new age to people – something to think about, which probably ushers or triggers a certain conversation in the society.”
“Normal is no fun, I don’t like generic. It doesn’t excite me because everybody’s doing that,” said Khurrana, adding that he wouldn’t know what to do with a vanilla character. “I would love to do a commercial mainstream masala film, but again, it cannot be generic,” he said. Khurrana cites the example of one of his upcoming projects “Action Hero” where he plays an action film superstar who doesn’t know how to fight in real life. “Action Hero,” directed by debutant Anirudh Iyer, starts principal principal photography in Jan. 2022.
Khurrana also has political thriller “Anek,” by Anubhav Sinha, with whom he memorably paired on police drama “Article 15” (2019). Social drama “Doctor G,” by Anubhuti Kashyap (streaming series “Afsos”) making her feature debut is complete. Khurrana plays for the first time a medical student studying gynecology.
Meanwhile, “Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui,” produced by T-Series and Guy in the Sky Pictures, is making steady progress at the box office.