How do you turn mocking into winning? Ask India’s first Paralympics gold medalist Murlikant Petkar, as well as Sumit Arora, the screenwriter of his biopic Chandu Champion. The Kartik Aaryan The starrer sports drama hit the screens earlier this month and opened to rave reviews. This was a special moment for Arora, because much like Petkar, who faced ridicule for his dream to win an Olympics gold medal, the writer too was mocked for wanting to make films.

“When I’d tell people growing up in Meerut that I want to go to Mumbai and write films, it was unimaginable for them,” says Sumit Arora, who is now dubbed as one of the busiest writers in the industry with credits like Stree, The Family Man, Shah Rukh Khan’s Jawan, Ranveer Singh starrer 83, Sonakshi Sinha headlined Dahaad and the 2024 Christmas release Baby John, featuring Varun Dhawan.

The screenwriter sat down with to talk about the Kabir Khan directorial, what was the toughest bit to crack in Chandu Champion, overcoming the sports biopic fatigue in Bollywood and if he is keeping a track of the film’s box office numbers.

Edited exceptions:

Sumit Arora Sumit Arora. (PR Handout)

This is a film based on the life of another person, how do you make it personal to you when you write it?

You have to find themes which resonate with you. I cannot function without that; I need to find something that moves me or connects with me. When Kabir told me Murlikant Petkar’s story, I was gobsmacked, that so much has happened to one more person. What attracted me the most was that it was the story of an impossible dream of a small-town boy, and his perseverance in the face of all the odds.

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When I’d tell people growing up in Meerut that I want to go to Mumbai and write films, it was unimaginable for them. They’d mock it, with no fault of theirs, because there was no connection to Mumbai. So whenever I would say I want to make films, I would get a mocking response. It was from there that the line,’Hasta kayko hai?’ came in for Chandu. I could never say it, but I felt it. Even in the film world, this is a tough journey. I got my first taste of success of 15 years with Stree. For all those years I just had to survive, believe in my dreams and not give. That’s what resonated with me.

Since you started writing Chandu Champion when 83 was awaiting its release, was there a conscious effort not to fall back on the hangover of 83? Both are sports biopic in a way, which talk about the impossible dream against all odds.

The genesis and the theme of Chandu Champion was different. While 83 is a film about an important and widely known and celebrated event, it was mostly about that moment in India’s history. Chandu was a story about an unknown personal triumph, which had no layer of public gaze. In 83, perhaps the whole country was looking at them thinking they’d never win it, but in this case, people didn’t even have an idea that a guy like him existed. In 83 it was a larger cause, about an underdog team. But that wasn’t the case here.

What are situations you fictionalized? Or characters you added for cinematic purposes?

Honestly, it is such a remarkably juicy life that we didn’t have to fictionalize much of the story part. So, the character of Topaz, played by Rajpal Yadav, who is in the hospital where Murlikant Petkar is being treated is based on a real person. Sir used to call him Topaz – we have no idea what his real name was – so we retained that in the film. For the coach Tiger Ali (played by Vijay Raaz), we have merged two characters to make one. We have taken real characters and merged them or extended one person’s part to make it more cinematic.

Even the character of his friend Garnail Singh, played by Bhuvan Arora, is an amalgamation of all his friends. In the Indian Army, Murlikant Petkar had many friends, but we wanted to focus our emotional investment into one character, so we merged all of them into one.

Sumit Arora with Raj and DK, and Kabir Khan. Sumit Arora with Raj and DK, and Kabir Khan. (PR handout)

What was the toughest episode to write in Chandu Champion?

The second half, when he wakes up from his coma after two years. That’s the part when the real struggle of his life began. We wanted to ensure the film remains true to the tone which we had picked for the first half. The particular tone had a sense of humor to it, it added the touch of lightness what we wanted. That’s why we got the character of Topaz, which he only told us about. When he enters the frame, the film’s energy changes.

Once we found Topaz, our second half started to fall in place. We found an anchor who could lift the energy of the story. Even though Murli is going through the toughest battle of his life, Topaz brings in a breath of fresh air and eventually becomes the main motivator in the hospital, which then leads to the arrival of Tiger Ali back in Murlikant’s life.

There is now sports biopic fatigue – we know there will be an underdog person, made fun of by the society, who will chase an impossible dream and win against all odds. This is by design a template. How does a writer break that?

You have to find different styles and structures to break the monotony of the genre which maybe is going through a fatigue, because certain biopics have come in. As a writer the challenge is that you have to find different narrative styles, tone for the film. Somewhere we were attempting that by taking the tone of humor. I personally believe that certain sense of humor differentiates the film from other movies. It has a sense of wonder; it is almost like a fable.

What also differentiated this story from other stories is that it was not focused on one particular sport. It was a story of one man’s dream of winning an Olympics medal, no matter what sport. That gives it a different perspective, which becomes an inviting playground to play at.

The tone of humor, joy and wonder is also not what one would think of when you narrate them the story of Murlikant Petkar. You’d imagine a far darker shade and a serious tone. But ours was an uplifting, feel-good tone, reflective of his journey. So yes, you have to find different elements which break away the monotony of a genre which has been done before many times. When we heard the story, we felt this was a fairytale and that became a key for us.

Is a writer invested in tracking box office? Are you actively tracking the numbers of Chandu Champion?

When your work comes out, you look at how people are reacting to your film. Everything is a measure of that – box office, reviews, reactions of people. They are all indicators of how people are reacting to the film, and I think that has been overwhelmingly positive. The numbers are picking up over the weekends as we speak, the second weekend was quite strong. Whoever has seen the film has come back really liking it. As a writer, I mostly track if the work is translating into good reactions, if people are liking what you’ve written.