What Farhan Akhtar did for upper-class Bombay, Dibakar Banerjee seems to have done for middle-class Delhi. As if following a fashion, the screens these days are filled with endearingly loud Punjabi types, who speak Hindi as if through a fractured mouth (every other syllable gets snipped) and who practically explode with colour. Take, for instance, the widowed Mrs. Arora (Dolly Ahluwalia, in this film’s finest performance; there’s genuine heart beneath all that broad humour). She runs a beauty parlour out of her home, slicing vegetables for dinner as her girls go about waxing and threading. And after dinner, she sits down with Biji (the uproarious Kamlesh Gill) for a ritual drink in scenes that are calculated to make us laugh, like that other one at a fertility clinic where the secretary asks a potential sperm donor his name, his age and his sex. We laugh at her because he’s obviously male, otherwise he wouldn’t be here, but we also laugh with her, at the utter Indianness of our obsessive need to fill out ridiculous forms and comport ourselves through reams of red tape.
But later, we see Mrs. Arora asleep in her son’s room, which is what she used to do after a quarrel with her late husband, and the character doesn’t seem all that comedic anymore. In a small dramatic scene later on, her son Vicky (Ayushmann Khurana) muses that those pegs at night help his mother sleep better. Shoojit Sircar’s Vicky Donor, for the most part, manages the very tricky feat of drawing back the curtain behind caricatures to reveal real people. As Vicky is persuaded by infertility specialist Dr. Chaddha (a charmingly passive-aggressive Annu Kapoor) to make sperm donations, he first says he hates kids. After this sitcommy declaration, he gets to mouth one of the film’s many laugh-out-loud lines, “Ghar pe baithe baithe baap ban raha hoon main,”that he’s sitting at home and fathering children. So far, Vicky is just living up to someone’s description of him as an “over-the-top Punju.” But then, he sobers up. “Technically I’ve become a dad,” he says. “Ajeeb lag raha hai.” The enormity of his offhand (in a manner of speaking) act has hit him, and he’ll never be the same again. And in a more chilling instance of a caricature turning into a person, we see a formerly exultant neighbour gloat when misfortune falls upon the family that denied her her desire.
Vicky Donor is one of those films that looks as if it’s going to shatter a hundred different on-screen taboos, but it’s actually as old-fashioned as they come. It puts a clever spin on all those films we’ve seen where the hero has a secret (that he’s a gangster, for instance, in Satya) that the audience is privy to but the heroine is unaware about. The film begins shakily, with scenes that sound funnier than they actually are. Possibly due to the compulsions of being something that can be watched with the family, the risqué aspects of the sperm-donation angle are never explored. And I wished they’d brought together Vicky and Dr. Chaddha in a more convincing fashion. (Their getting together is as much a one-in-a-million shot of randomness as you can expect in the good doctor’s line of work. Also, wouldn’t someone as cocky as Vicky just blow off the doctor’s strange and extremely personal request?) And there’s some very broad humour – in a montage featuring donors that include an old man and a flamboyantly gay youth, and later, in a scene that pivots on the worst Punjabi and Bengali stereotypes – that plays very badly. In short, the scenes we looked forward to, those moments of great transgression, just don’t work at all.
The film begins to click when it’s being least transgressive, about halfway through the first half, when Vicky begins to flirt and fall in love with Ashima (Yami Gautam). This romance begins slowly, over accidental meetings and Facebook friendings (they refer to each other as “fish” and “butter chicken,” given that she’s Bengali and he’s Punjabi), and their unforced togetherness takes over the film. Khurana and Gautam work wonderfully with each other, and we’re, again, inside one of those old movies where we know a secret is going to spill out and split the couple, and we desperately wish we can stave off the moment. (And the thawing, after their split, is as gradual as their falling in love; she leaves him, but later, she picks up his call and says she needs time.) Unlike modern-day yuppie romances, this isn’t just about downing shots in a neon-lit bar. Vicky and Ashima do that too – but she visits a gurudwara with him, and he ventures into a puja pandal. We buy this couple because they seem to genuinely want to be with each other at all times. (And it’s a lovely touch that their inevitable breakup isn’t positioned predictably at interval point, even though there are hints that this may be coming.)
In the second half, the romance completely edges out the sperm-donation angle – which, in any case, was just the ignition switch for this story about marriage and after – and it keeps building in remarkably unmelodramatic ways, and the contrivance that brings the couple back together has the satisfying daffiness of a rom-com conclusion. Even more satisfying is the skill with which the film weaves in the message from the title card at the beginning, a WHO statement about there being a shortage of sperm donors. (If that doesn’t gladden the heart of pocket-money-starved teenage boys everywhere, I don’t know what will.) The messagey aspect of the movie gets a bit of a heavy workout in the early portions – where Vicky (and therefore the audience) is educated about the process, a lesson that begins with our epics, where queens bore children that were not always from the kings, and ends in the present day, where stress and lifestyle changes have made infertility rampant – but it becomes less intrusive, gradually, as the advise comes not through dialogue but through subtle shifts in the story and the characters. By the end, you may feel you’ve watched one of those Sanjeev Kumar movies where he kept engineering happy solutions for unhappy couples – just done with far less ham-handedness.
Vicky Donor is as classy a “message movie” as can be imagined under the circumstances. It isn’t just that the message of being able to get past not having children of your own is important (and the film beautifully blends in an adoption angle as well) – it would have meant nothing if people had stopped in their tracks and begun to harangue us with well-meaning advice (which, naturally, we would have shrunk from). Just look at the number of “teachings” this film gets across. That it’s okay to talk about sperm (the kachori-munching Annu Kapoor even makes a cute, cartoon-like motion with his fingers scissoring through air, as if rendering a potentially sticky subject safe by a show-and-tell approach suitable for family audiences). That it isn’t right to raise kids with the burdens of your dreams. (The husband wants “cricket-waala sample.” The wife wants a model’s. Kapoor replies in a line tossed off with such casualness that you don’t feel its sting until later: “Pehle career decide karo, baad mein bachcha paida karo.”) That it’s no shame to donate sperm. That the most outwardly modern of women can be plagued with inner doubts in these matters. That it’s no big deal to get remarried. And that it’s okay to be confused about Lady Gaga’s gender. The points get across… swimmingly.
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