Sharat Katariya likes to take familiar stories and set them in places you don’t expect. In his first feature, 10ml Love, he relocated A Midsummer Night’s Dream to modern-day Mumbai. In Dum Laga Ke Haisha, he transports the rom-com – a traditionally urbane genre – to Haridwar of the 1990s. The era is lovingly recreated. Mile sur mera tumhara wafts out of television sets, but Bhimsen Joshi has nothing on Kumar Sanu, who’s everywhere. The film’s heart, though, is from the 1970s. Within his rom-com template, Katariya resurrects the Piya Ka Ghar-type drama, filled with large, tradition-bound families whose members couldn’t take a step without everyone else voicing an opinion. The frames buzz with life – someone is always flitting in and out. This may be the only rom-com where the leads – Prem (an effectively subdued Ayushmann Khurrana) and Sandhya (Bhumi Pednekar) – meet in a temple, surrounded by their families. Boy Meets Girl… and the In-Laws. They’re soon married.
That’s the first of a series of surprises. Sandhya is a sweet-looking woman, a little on the heavier side – but she isn’t terribly conscious about it. She’s no Bridget Jones, determined to knock off the kilos in order to gain self-esteem. Sandhya’s self-esteem is fine, thank you very much. She knows her weight is a function of her body’s “metabolism” – her use of this word when mocked lightly about her size by Prem’s aunt (Sheeba Chaddha) is one of the film’s most delightful moments. In other words, the people around her (including her bratty younger brother) may be fat-shaming her, but she’s not fat-shaming herself, which is – to use the appropriate word here – huge. Plus, she’s no wallflower. We see her dancing with others at weddings, full-on jhatkas that find fruition in the adorably tacky ‘90s-style song over the closing credits.
It would have been easy to make Sandhya the (big) butt of jokes, like Guddi Maruti was in the films of the period. But Katariya treats her with respect. The “comedy” scenes are beautifully low-key, like the one in which she goes to a neighbourhood store to buy lingerie because Prem doesn’t seem terribly interested in discharging his husbandly duties. The result of this purchase made me laugh my head off. Prem yields to her overtures, and the next morning, he says to the head of the RSS-like organisation he’s a part of that he succumbed to his senses. Main indriyon se haar gaya. Every now and then, it’s nice to be reminded that there are filmmakers who don’t think in English and write in Hindi.
Sandhya is ambitious. She’s done her B.Ed. (Fittingly, the first fight between Prem and Sandhya occurs in a library; like a stern schoolteacher, she asks him to lower his voice.) She’s got guts too. When she gets a posting in Meerut, she doesn’t hesitate to accept the job, despite never having lived alone. Above all, she’s practical. When things don’t work out between her and Prem, she simply says that she doesn’t need him and he doesn’t need her. She weeps a little, but she bounces back. It’s a good thing that Kataria didn’t get an established actress to play this part, having her put on weight like Vidya Balan did in The Dirty Picture. We respond to Pednekar’s freshness and her lack of actressy tics. She just seems to belong to this place, to this period. She looks real.
Amazingly, it’s Prem who has the complex – and this is where the film becomes a little more than your empty-headed rom-com. Scratch the fun surface and there’s serious dysfunction. Prem has a complex about not having cleared Class X. He has a complex about not having stepped out of his domineering father’s (Sanjay Mishra) shadow. Kataria respects Prem too. We aren’t invited to hate him – not even when he insults Sandhya while with his friends. We know the man’s got serious issues, and we aren’t even sure if his problem with Sandhya is that he doesn’t like plus-size women in general or if Sandhya’s arrival in his life has caused another complex, that he’ll not just be known as the guy who couldn’t clear Class X, the guy who gets bossed around by his father, the guy who gets emotionally manipulated by his mother (Alka Amin) and aunt, but also as the guy who couldn’t get a svelte, conventionally pretty girl to marry him.
The minor miracle of Dum Laga Ke Haisha is that, unlike English Vinglish, we don’t follow the journey of the person with the perceived problem. By the end, Sandhya isn’t asked to transform the way the Sridevi character did in that film. She makes no effort to change. Prem learns to accept her the way she is – and the film is really about Prem’s journey. In an early scene, his father relegates him to the back seat of their car, and later, he says he’ll sit in front – that’s his character arc in a nutshell. At the end, he enters a competition – this film keeps reminding us of Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi – in which husbands carry wives on their backs and run a race on an obstacle course. This is, of course, a metaphor for marriage. Prem has starting trouble, then he picks up speed, negotiates ups and downs, and reaches the finish line. While watching the film, I felt this was a little sexist. The man has to do all the heavy lifting in marriage and the woman just hangs on. But because this is Prem’s journey, we accept the conceit. Besides, the awww-factor in these portions is off the charts. I couldn’t stop smiling.
The film could have used more romance. There’s a nice scene where Prem and Sandhya walk and talk, but I wished more had been done with the recording studio that Prem runs. (If you are of a certain vintage, his stacks of cassettes may remind you of your hostel room in college.) His passion for film music – and our passion for film music, which seeps into the fabric of our lives – is spoofed in a hilarious antakshari-type sequence, where Prem and Sandhya keep playing songs that reflect their moods. (She: Woh meri neend, mera chain mujhe lauta do. He: Samjhauta ghamon se kar lo.) When we are led into the plot point where Sandhya asks Prem to record songs for her, I thought this would lead up a big moment. But the payoff is disappointingly muted.
But in general, this film knows its music. A soothing Italian-sounding score fills the soundtrack – it’s as laidback as these environs – and the lovely Yeh moh moh ke dhaage is used to underline the physical nature of the central relationship in unexpected ways. The first time the song plays, Prem is driving his scooter and Sandhya is holding on to him from behind. The second time, he’s carrying her in that race.
A few small things didn’t work for me. I didn’t care for the aunt’s sudden transformation to the catalyst in the Prem-Sandhya marriage. I wasn’t too convinced about the way Sandhya allowed herself to be roped back into a life with Prem after walking away and initiating divorce proceedings. And the business about a rival recording studio doesn’t play well. But Kataria always has a trick or two to smoothen out these wrinkles. Prem’s argument with the man who threatens to open the recording studio – both men are surrounded by their families, naturally – ends with the distribution of cake. It’s someone’s birthday. And at the divorce court, Prem and Sandhya are practically sidelined – their wailing families occupy centre stage. Dum Laga Ke Haisha reminds us of a time when family was such an important part of India – and Indian cinema. It’s a rom-com about kith and make up.
- jhatkas = see here
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