Review: ‘Chandu Champion,’ starring Kartik Aaryan, Vijay Raaz and Bhuvan Arora

June 30, 2024

by Carla Hay

Kartik Aaryan in “Chandu Champion” (Photo courtesy of Pen Marudhar Entertainment)

“Chandu Champion”

Directed by Kabir Khan

Hindi with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in India and partially in Japan and in Germany, from 1952 to 2017, the dramatic film “Chandu Champion” features a predominantly Indian cast of characters (with some white people) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Indian Army soldier Murlikant Petkar’s dream of becoming an Olympic gold medalist boxer is shattered when he is severely wounded in the Indo-Pakistani War, and he re-invents himself as a swimmer who trains for the Paralympics.  

Culture Audience: “Chandu Champion” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners and are interested in watching an inspiring biopic about an underrated athlete.

Kartik Aaryan in “Chandu Champion” (Photo courtesy of Pen Marudhar Entertainment)

“Chandu Champion” has a familiar formula of sports underdog movies, but in this case, the formula works marvelously. It’s a well-acted and artfully filmed biopic about Paralympic champion Murlikant Petkar. Even if you didn’t know this true story before watching the movie, it’s easy to predict how the movie is going to end. That predictability doesn’t take away from emotion-stirring thrills and heartbreaks that viewers will experience in this cinematic journey.

Directed by Kabir Khan, “Chandu Champion” was co-written by Khan, Sumit Arora and Sudipto Sarkar. The movie takes place from 1952 to 2017, mostly in India and partially in Germany. Because the movie trailers for “Chandu Champion” reveal almost the entire story arc that’s presented in the film, it leaves very little room for surprises. However, this 142-minute film doesn’t feel overly long or overstuffed with filler because the movie’s writing, directing and acting are very good at maintaining interest and keeping viewers emotionally invested.

“Chandu Champion” begins in 2017, when Murlikant “Murli” Petkar (played by Kartik Aaryan), who is 72 or 73, walks into a police station and announces that he wants to file a complaint against the president of India for not getting the Arjuna Award, which is India’s second-highest prize for sports achievements. (For the purposes of this review, the real Murlikant “Murli” Petkar will be referred to as Petkar, while the Murlikant “Murli” Petkar character in “Chandu Champion” will be referred to as Murli.) Murli then proceeds to tell the gathered police officers his life story, which are presented as flashbacks in the movie.

In 1952, when Murli was 7 or 8 years old (played by Ayan Khan Sroha), he was smaller than most boys his age. He grew up in the village of Peth Islampur in Maharashtra, India. As a boy, Murli was a big fan of wrestling. And he would tell almost everyone that he was going to become a Olympic gold medalist wrestler. Murli’s father (played by Nitin Bhajan) thinks it’s a foolish dream, while Murli’s mother (played by Hemangi Kavi) is supportive of Murli.

Unfortunately, other boys in the village began to mercilessly taunt and bully Murli for expressing his wrestling goals. One bully in particular named Dagdu Patil (played by Haraq Bhartiya) singles out Murli for physical fights. Undeterred, Murli seeks out a villager named Ganpat Bhau (played by Ganesh Yadav), who is known to train wrestling champions. Murli asks Ganpat to train him as a wrestler. Because of Murli’s young age and small size, Ganpat laughs at Murli’s request.

The movie than flashes forward to a young adult Murli (played by Aaryan), who is now tall and has a lean but muscular build. Murli is now a talented wrestler, but Dagdu Patil (played by Amit Kumar) is still Murli’s enemy. When Murli wins a public but informal wrestling match against Dagdu, several of Dagdu’s supporters get very angry and turn into a violent mob chasing Murli. (The very fake-looking wig that Aaryan wears in these scenes is a distraction, but it doesn’t ruin these scenes.)

A frightened Murli manages to escape by hopping on a slow-moving train. It’s on this train that he meets mild-mannered Karnail Singh (played by Bhuvan Arora), who is a recruit in the Indian Army. Murli tells Karnail about his dream to become an Olympc gold medalist in wrestling. Karnail suggests that Murlikant join the Indian Army so that Murli can get trained as a boxer.

And that’s exactly what happens. Murli’s boxing coach in the Army is Tiger Ali (played by Vijay Raaz), who becomes Murli’s most important mentor. Karnail becomes Murli’s best friend. Murli becomes a boxer who wins many fights. He and Karnail are selected to take part in the international Military Games in Tokyo. It’s at a Miltary Games reception where Murli meets a editor/journalist (played by Sonali Kulkarni), who takes an interest him on a professional level. She will play a pivotal role later in the story.

Murli’s life takes an unexpected turn in 1965, when he is shot with nine bullets while in combat during the Indo-Pakistani War. He ends up with paraplegia and is told by medical professionals that it would be too dangerous to remove one of the bullets lodged in his back because it would leave Murli with an even more serious paralysis. Murli then decides to re-invent himself as a swimmer who trains for the 1972 Paralympics in Germany, with Tiger as his coach. None of this is spoiler information because it’s all in the trailer for “Chandu Champion.”

During his long and painful recovery in a hospice, Murli battles depression not just because of his medical issues but also because his family denied his request to move back home with them. His family members think that Murli is better off at the hospice, where he can get the medical care that he needs. Murli befriends a cheerful hospice orderly named Topaz (played by Rajpal Yadav), who is able to lift Murli’s spirits most of the time.

“Chandu Champion” is probably the most physically demanding role of Aaryan’s career. He more than rises to the challenge, because the grueling transformations that Murli goes through look very authentic. Aaryan has been mostly known for starring in lightweight comedies, but he capably shows his acting versatility in “Chandu Champion,” which depicts Murli’s obstacles and triumphs in a very compelling manner.

On a technical level, “Chandu Champion” has excellent cinematography by Sudeep Chatterjee. One of the best scenes in the film is toward the end when Murli sees flashes of his life during a very important swimming competition. It’s a combination of the immersive cinematography, film editing and visual effects that make this scene so memorable.

The movie also has a rousing musical score by Julius Packiam. Thankfully, “Chandu Champion” avoids having a sound mix that that makes the score music too loud, which is one of the most irritating aspects of numerous movies with action scenes. The song-and-dance musical interludes in “Chandu Champion” seem out of place but luckily do not take up a lot of screen time.

“Chandu Champion” is a worthy tribute to a sports hero who might not be on a superstar level but deserves to have more people know about his story. Beyond what Petkar achieved in real life as an athlete is what he represents as a human being, in terms of bravery and perseverance. It’s an inspirational story that people can take to heart, no matter who they are.

Pen Marudhar Entertainment released “Chandu Champion” in select U.S. cinemas and in India on June 14, 2024.

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