First-generation NRIs, especially those in the US, will often sigh that they belong nowhere. Used to the comforts of the West, they cannot return to India, but thanks to their innate Indianness, they don’t feel they belong there either. The characters of Maneesh Sharma’s Shuddh Desi Romance are something like that. They express disdain for arranged marriages. Gayatri (Parineeti Chopra) goes as far as saying that the nation’s lies and double standards are exposed in these unions. And yet, they haven’t fully learnt to handle live-in relationships. They see the point, the convenience, but old habits die hard, and when Gayatri’s live-in boyfriend Raghu (Sushant Singh Rajput) learns about her exes, one of whom was a dolt who was a little too free with his hands (“dimaag chalta nahin tha, haath rukte nahin the”), his face falls. He doesn’t say anything, but you can hear the wheels in his head turning: Was he a better kisser? A better lover? Did she do things for him that she won’t do for me? You see where a lot of this is coming from in an early speech, where he says that women have, um, desires too, but there’s a little pause in that acknowledgement. He hunts for the right word, the least offensive word, before he lands on… armaan.
These contradictions are painfully funny. Raghu is okay with Gayatri’s smoking and he regularly steps out to buy cigarettes, but when a “neighbour uncle” speaks of her past, he becomes his father, his grandfather – he cannot help poking and prying. The title may be a tongue-in-cheek allusion to the fact that this sexually liberated story is anything but a shuddh desi romance, especially given that this isn’t the metros we’re talking about but (comparatively) small-town India. It’s the kind of place where everybody knows everybody else. (After ordering two plates of gulab jamuns, Raghu tells the waiter that he’ll pay him the next day. You can’t imagine this happening in a Café Coffee Day.) But this isn’t the small-town India we know from earlier films – here, being ditched at the altar isn’t the end, simply a new beginning. These folks seem to be in a hurry to make up for lost time. The graffiti on a bathroom wall reads “pyaar do pyaar lo,” and a bride makes out with an electrician on the day of her wedding. Still, they realise that there’s nothing that really binds these relationships, no family to protect you, no society to answer to. All this freedom comes at the price of not knowing how long it’s going to last.
With Bittoo Sharma in Band Baaja Baraat and the characters Ranbir Kapoor plays for Ayan Mukerji, we’re seeing a new kind of Hindi film hero, desi men who are really children and who (are forced to) grow up in the presence of the strong, decisive women around them. Raghu is the latest in this relatively short line. Tara (Vaani Kapoor), whom he starts dating at one point, actually tells him, “Tum sachmuch bachche ho.” He’s a kid, and she cannot stop smiling while looking at him, despite his propensity to say and do the most awful and inopportune things (which, really, is what a kid does). Raghu’s career, too, is all over the place. He’s a registered tourist guide, but we often find him faking it as a member of a wedding procession or else selling overpriced bandhni dupattas to gullible American tourists. He tells the first one that these dupattas are made by Iraqi orphans, and after a while, when the script turns full circle and deposits us back at this scene, he hoodwinks another tourist by invoking orphans from Afghanistan.
Jaideep Sahni’s script is filled with such echoes. (We also get an echo from Maneesh Sharma’s Band Baaja Baraat when we see pigeons at the opening of both halves of the film. Someone should ask him what this is about.) The characters go around in circles; the events follow suit. At the theatre I saw the film in, some people got restless with this seemingly adrift quality, but as much as you want to scream to the characters “Make up you bloody mind,” you realise that the film is about those who cannot make up their minds. (We’re meant to be frustrated by their indecisiveness.) The stuck-in-an-endless-loop nature of the writing is essential. (One step forward, one step back, one step forward, one step back…) If the events were too driven, too focused, we’d be seeing a different movie, with an entirely different set of characters. And sometimes, these echoes result in laughs. In one of the film’s most riotous scenes, Raghu and Gayatri, in turn, assume an overly casual air and try to find out – from Goyal (Rishi Kapoor, enjoying himself in a hugely entertaining performance) – more about the person they’re living with but not married to. We recall this scene as Gayatri complains later, “If you’re in a stage of the relationship where you’re washing this man’s undies and he’s enquiring about your past, is he worth it?” And we want to say, “Well, you were asking about him too.” So much for her contention about double standards.
The way these characters are shaped, shaded is beautiful, and there are terrific individual moments with the leads. (All of them are very good, especially Rajput, who gives a touchingly awkward performance befitting an awkward character.) Raghu snaps at a bus conductor when he’s packed off by Tara, but he bursts into a smile and apologises when he sees that she’s written down her number for him on a currency note. First, we think Tara is a cool customer because her reaction when a calamity befalls her is to ask for a cold drink – but later we realise what she was really doing, what was really going through her mind. Speaking of cold drinks, it’s a sight when Raghu asks for one at a wedding. He’s so tentative, so hesitant – that this flake ends up being something of a Casanova (or “Kamdev Ji” as Goyal hilariously puts it) is one of the film’s great jokes.
What doesn’t work as well is the overall narrative. The relationship between Raghu and Gayatri progresses so quickly it’s almost comical. One moment, they’re cautiously pecking each other’s lips, and the next she’s shaving her legs in the bathroom as he lathers his face. It’s easy to see why he says “I love you” so quickly – that’s very much in character with his need to say and do the “right” thing, often without thinking about consequences. (He does something similar with Tara when he decides he needs to apologise for hurting her.) But I didn’t see this chap as someone who’ll steal a quick kiss when the girl seated beside him in a bus reaches across to get her bag. (He’s a child, yes, but still…) With Raghu and Gayatri, it’s easier to see what drives them apart than to sense what brings them together. Of course, love knows no sense or reason, but when someone has been burnt as much as Gayatri has been in her past relationships, there’s the sense that she’s moving too fast. She says as much, but then gives in to this man who does almost nothing to convince her that this time things will be different. This looks odd, given the flintiness with which she approaches life (and love), insisting, for instance, that she’ll give no discounts for a job she’s doing for Goyal, who’s something of a mentor. Odder still – with this writer and director – is the show-and-tell: a lot of what’s meant to be inferred from this story is blurted out by the characters to the camera. (“We often run after things once they slip from our grasp,” and so forth.) And for a film that strives to be so subtle, some of the contrivances are graceless – like the ride to the station that initiates the eventual confrontation between Raghu and Gayatri. (The priest in the back seat, though, is very funny.)
Allow me to trot out a theory, that Sahni’s scripts work best when handled by forceful and unsubtle directors, people who are the exact opposite in terms of sensibility. His writing is a little too clean and neat – every t crossed, every i dotted – and it needs a touch of unruliness. The films of his that I’ve enjoyed the most are Company and Aaja Nachle, the former a thrilling genre exercise whose unruliness came from a filmmaker who isn’t afraid to show off, and the latter a “minor film” whose unruliness came from its Bollywood star-vehicle clichés, which Sahni surmounted beautifully. With almost all of Sahni’s other works, there’s something missing, and I think that something is energy. When a subtle writer’s work is filmed by a subtle filmmaker, maybe we end up with too… understated a product. A little brashness isn’t out of place in a love story, and Maneesh Sharma found that quality in Habib Faisal’s screenplay for Band Baaja Baraat. (Faisal also co-wrote Salaam Namaste, another film about a live-in relationship.) While I was relieved that this love triangle did not involve a scene where Tara and Gayatri ended up fighting over Raghu, I couldn’t help wishing that they didn’t seem so much in control of their emotions, always saying the right things, the wise-beyond-their-age things (though Tara has a spot-on line about how we remember the times we stopped being in love rather than the times we started). We don’t need sad songs in the rain, but surely some messy emotion isn’t too much to ask for in such a tightrope-walking romance.
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