It’s now an instantly recognisable subgenre in Hindi cinema. A ‘hatke’ subject that deals with social ‘taboos’ and dollops of humour to make the issue palatable. A largely north Indian middle-class setting, often small-town, with extended families. A top-notch ensemble featuring a permutation-combination of the same character actors, headlined by those torchbearers of this school of films, Ayushmann Khurrana or RajKummar Rao.
Badhaai Do stays true to the type set up by its predecessors Shubh Mangal Saavdhan (2017), Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan, Badhaai Ho and the recent Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui or even Bareilly Ki Barfi, for that matter. If one were to close one’s eyes and ‘listen’ to these films, one would be hard-pressed to make one out from the other. In that sense, Badhaai Do, despite its welcome advocacy for inclusiveness and its ‘progressive’ stance, remains largely generic, formulaic.
Unlike a number of previous Hindi films, where the protagonist’s sexual orientation played out as a reveal that drives the narrative, in Badhaai Do, we have this spelt right at the outset. Shardul Thakur (RajKummar) is the only male officer in an all-women police station (nice touch that) in Dehradun. Suman Singh (Bhumi Pednekar) is a physical education instructor (a nod to our preconceived notions on gender and career). The conflict here arises from their respective families insisting that they get married.
Shardul even conjures a fictitious Muslim lover to keep his family at bay till they give in and agree to that too (another interesting social aside — what’s more acceptable to the great Indian family: the son marrying outside caste/religion or being homosexual?). A dating app misadventure leads Suman to file a police complaint. Quick to latch on to the situation, Shardul proposes a marriage of convenience to Suman to get their families off their backs.
But of course, complications arise — beginning with the sham of keeping up appearances with neighbours, particularly when Shardul’s boss lives next door. Things take a turn when Suman brings in her lover Rimjhim (Chum Darang) to the flat, much to the dismay of Shardul. Then before the year is out, the families are back again, this time clamouring for a child. This leads to some more comedy of errors and eventually drives the narrative to explore aspects of adoption rights for gays and lesbians.
If the film still manages to break free of the clutter-mass this genre of films is fast reaching, it’s because of an array of splendid performances. The actors brighten up proceedings every time the narrative flags — which is often given its inordinate length. Sheeba Chaddha as Shardul’s slow-witted mother and Gulshan Devaiah as Shardul’s lover are particularly good, the latter injecting a good deal of life into the film’s last act when it’s clearly gasping for breath.
But more than the fun bits, which tend to pall after a while, it is the nuanced observations that work better. Consider the gay protagonist’s inherent chauvinism, for example, the way he leads his cops to hustle lovers at a park or his tendency to boss around his ‘wife’ at home to serve tea to guests. Or the way the film handles the protagonists’ past affairs of the heart. Or even Suman’s relationship with her father.
The light-hearted approach might make Badhaai Do more seductive to the viewer, but it also hides its inherent tokenism, including a pride march with an anthemic song as an epilogue. Also, as a writer has pointed out, ‘Popularising lavender marriages can set the LGBTQ+ community in India a few steps back again. And can hinder the fight for same-sex marriages.’
Despite these pitfalls, the film is eminently watchable, thanks in no mean manner to the two lead actors and the occasional throwaway line like being a lesbian ‘hamare life ka hissa hai, puri life thodi na hai’. It’s a baby step towards a mainstream Hindi film that will eventually see the issue with all its ugly social ramifications, the violence and trauma that has little place for humour.
Title: Badhaai Do
Cast: RajKummar Rao, Bhumi Pednekar, Chum Darang, Gulshan Devaiah
Director: Harshvardhan Kulkarni
Where: At a theatre near you
Rating: 3 stars
(Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri is an award-winning publisher, editor and a film buff)