“Badhaai Ho”… A warm, funny tale about how we deal with it when an older woman ends up pregnant

Posted on October 22, 2018

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Spoilers ahead…

Amit Ravindernath Sharma’s Badhaai Ho is the latest installment of the subgenre we’ve come to recognise as The Ayushmann Khurrana Film Where Sex Collides With Middle-class Mores™. Why aren’t more people talking about what this actor has accomplished with this subgenre? It’s one thing to educate the audience about toilets and menstruation — it’s icky, but it’s still about something we all do, and wouldn’t mind admitting to doing (even if the conversation results in a high squirm count). But the Khurrana films talk about sperm donation and erectile dysfunction, which fall on the thornier end of the taboo spectrum. “I couldn’t take a shit today” merely makes you a purveyor of TMI. “I couldn’t get it up today” reduces you to an object of pity or ridicule (or both). I’m not suggesting Ayushmann Khurrana is basically an A-rated Akshay Kumar. I’m just saying his films are doing something very necessary, without waving  a flag at our face. It’s entertainment, perhaps even education — but without ennoblement. That’s a real win.

At first, in Badhaai Ho (written by Shanatanu Srivastava, Akshat Ghildial, Jyoti Kapoor), the predicament doesn’t seem to belong to the Ayushmann Khurrana character, a middle-class Delhi-ite named Nakul. He’s a railway ticket checker’s son, but he’s unembarrassed about it. He has moved onward, upward. He works in a white-collar environment and dates his super-rich colleague, Renee (Sanya Malhotra). In an earlier era, this class difference would have been enough to create the conflict in the narrative. But Renee’s wine-sipping mother (Sheeba Chaddha) likes Nakul — even if his family is a “circus she doesn’t want to buy tickets to.” Let’s take a minute here to recall Sheeba Chadda’s housewife character in Luck by Chance, and contrast that naivete with the sophistication on display here. It’s the proverbial A to Z. Whatever you think about Hindi cinema today, there’s no denying that this is a golden age for character actors.

So where’s the problem? It, um, rises one night when Nakul’s father, Jitendar (Gajraj Rao) begins to read out poetry to his wife Priyamvada (Neena Gupta). It begins to rain, and the camera — so far gazing at the couple on the bed — pans gently to the window, as though averting its eyes. It’s a more tasteful variant of the two kissing flowers in the sixties’ films. Badhaai Ho is tasteful, too. In the first scene, during a satsang, Priyamvada is seen with too much lipstick. I brushed it off as a bad makeup job, but we soon see that this woman likes her lipstick, much to the disapproval of Nakul’s Dadi (Surekha Sikri). Right there, the story’s seeds are sown. Is a fiftysomething middle-class bahu — with two sons (the second one is a teenager in school) — entitled to vanity? (It’s not something we’d ask about Renee’s mother.)

The trailer seemed to give away all plot points, that we are in for a series of embarrassments about Priyamvada’s pregnancy — but the embarrassments are actually around it. Priyamavada is red-faced, sure — but despite Neena Gupta’s warm and empathetic performance, she isn’t the focus. The society around her is. How does Dadi react to the Good News? (By guilt-tripping Jitendar and shaming Priyamvada as a lipstick-wearing temptress.) How do relatives at a wedding react? (The men bow to Jitendar’s virility, while the women chide Priyamvada for putting them in the position of having to explain all this to the in-laws.) How does Renee react? (With a shrug of her posh shoulders. After all, as she tells Nakul, wouldn’t they still be doing it when they reach their parents’ age?)

Renee’s mother reacts with surprising practicality, which the rest of the film glosses over. She wonders about the health risks that await Priyamvada, the financial strain that’s in store for Jitendar. But the film is really about Nakul’s reaction. When he receives the news, he’s mortified. The question on his mind is ostensibly “How could they?” but it’s really “How could they do this and not think about how much my friends will tease me and what it means to my own masculinity when my father is still the resident stud bull?” It’s the quintessential Ayushmann Khurrana Film  problem. At one point he isn’t able to do it with Renee because he’s too busy fixating on his parents’ sex life. And the film becomes a light-hearted meditation on how we should respect the fact that older people have needs too, and why we shouldn’t put middle-aged women on a sexless pedestal: they may be middle-aged, but they’re women, too.

Badhaai Ho has a few… well, issues. The Nakul-Renee romance is taxingly generic, though I liked it that we’re spared the meet-cute and the courtship. This is a very focused narrative — their relationship is driven solely by Nakul’s mother’s pregnancy. In fact, each character is shaped by this pregnancy. Dadi may keep griping about Priyamvada, but she knows that her other daughters-in-law have done far worse than getting pregnant: they’ve all but abandoned her. Surekha Sikri nails both the acerbic and affectionate extremes of this crotchety character. And for Gajraj Rao, this is the character actor’s equivalent of a star-making role. Jitendar squirms with shame, unable to meet Nakul in the eye, but later, with just Priyamvada around, he sits in front of a mirror, trying to carve out a moustache. He’s the middle-class, middle-aged male we all know.

If there are no surprises from Ayushmann Khurrana, this is still an excellent collection of tics, starts and double takes. He probably has no peer today in the unique performance zone he occupies: part pantomime (he uses his body beautifully), part toned-down dramatics. He’s a light actor but not a lightweight actor. Even in the heavier scenes, he’s a bouyant presence. Badhaai Ho is similar: light but not lightweight. In the scene where Jitendar walks into their old doctor’s clinic to see what the problem is (Priyamvada has been complaining of aches and nausea), the doctor beams but the nurse just stares at him. The old man is like “Your swimmers are still strong, you dog!” The nurse, on the other hand, seems to be thinking about what Priyamvada is in for. Amidst the plentiful laughs, there’s plenty to think about.

Copyright ©2018 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Posted in: Cinema: Hindi