Director: Aanand L. Rai Writers: Himanshu Sharma, Kanika Dhillon Cast: Akshay Kumar, Bhumi Pednekar, Deepika Khanna, Sahejmeen Kaur, Sadia Khateeb, Smrithi Srikanth, Neeraj Sood, Sahil Mehta
You have to give it to the makers of Raksha Bandhan. It takes real guts to conceive, create, and release a movie like this, especially in 2022. Also, it speaks volumes about the women associated with this project. It reflects how deeply entrenched patriarchy is in our society where we, the so-called independent and modern women, still have zero qualms considering ourselves as second-class citizens and are happy being voiceless props to create a hero out of a man.
Lalaji, who sells miracle golgappas that blesses pregnant women with male children, is ‘burdened’ with four sisters. One is fat, one is dark complexioned, one is a tomboy, and one is fair and pretty. Of course, the fair one is the apple of his eye. And the rest are clubbed as damaged goods.
Lalaji’s entire focus in life is to get these sisters married. He gets the fair sister married first because she is regarded as a better bargain in the marriage market. There is a scene where the prospective groom’s family and Lalaji are bargaining about the dowry amount that plays out like an auction. The rest of the sisters are body-shamed in every possible instance. They are dehumanized as they are shown fighting over samosas like animals (no, the ‘pretty one’ doesn’t engage in such acts). At one point the tomboyish sister, who is still a kid, is made to wear a saree, no matter how uncomfortable she feels, she needs to fit into the conventional idea of a sanskari naari. There are too many fat jokes to keep a track of and as many jokes about being dark-skinned. None of these sisters have been given distinct characteristics apart from the ones needed to create a stereotype out of them. At every point, you are told that these three need more dowries because they are not optimum–quality products. And damaged goods get damaged goods. So, the fat and the dark-skinned sisters are matched with two stammering twins. The two men with speech impediments are adequately made fun of (you can’t accuse the makers/writers of gender discrimination here). Lalaji, being the brother who is willing to give his life for his sisters, sells his kidney to arrange for the dowries of these two sets of couples.
But as such stories go, the fair sister, who was already married off, falls victim to dowry death (there also, Lalaji doesn’t fail to point out to the in-laws that he had given them the best goat from his stock…erm…sorry his best sister). This event becomes a turning point, and Lalaji screams about the perils of the dowry system and decides that his sisters should become educated and independent (although the end goal remains their marriage; unless the sisters are married he can’t get married, because #maakodiyahuavachan, remember?). But, the fun part? He decides that for them! Like goats, first, he decides to take them to the slaughterhouse and then he has a change of heart and decides to let them graze amid the meadows. All hail the kind-hearted man! The girls are of course equal to domesticated animals, they can’t have any free will. And it is the men who give them their independence if they deem it fit. Freedom is a Rakhsabandhan gift.
All through the movie, the men decide and the women follow the diktats. Even Lalaji’s love interest has no free will, her voice is used sparingly, and that too is only for melodramatic rants. Lalaji decides for her that she should get married to another man, as he can’t marry her until his sisters are married off, and then her father decides that she should call off the wedding because he is suddenly the doting dad. Also, there is a scene where Lalaji announces while standing in the middle of the road that any man who would be found cat-calling a woman would have to get married to her. What the woman wants is never asked.
I would refrain from analyzing the direction, acting, cinematography, etc much. It has good comedy that trembles on the brink of crass and sometimes trips over. Anand L Rai is a master at creating the small-town milieu and does so brilliantly yet again (this is supposed to be set in Chandni Chowk though). And yes, Akshay Kumar does a good job; he is definitely much better as Lala Kedarnath than he was as Prithviraj Chauhan. But, nothing, absolutely nothing redeems this movie at any point. Not even Lalaji’s overly-dramatic scene where he screams out the evils of the dowry system and the plight of women in society. The most problematic thing about this movie is that it projects a toxic chauvinistic man as a lovable, endearing, and even righteous character. His transformation isn’t all-round, but one that looks contrived to suit the messaging.
Just imagine having a brother who is constantly body-shaming you, with or without the dowry-marriage situation. No, I would not be ok. Also, after a point one begins to doubt the nobility of his intentions, and one is made to wonder if his desperation is really stemming from his eagerness to give his sisters a better life by marrying them off, or if he is actually more interested in tying the knot with his ladylove?
Even a Raanjhanaa or an Atrangi Re hardly prepares you for the experience that is Raksha Bandhan. The first feeling this film evoked is that of disbelief. It makes you question things. Have you walked into an alternate reality? Have you time-traveled to the ’60s? Is this some kind of a nightmare-inside-nightmare Inception situation? You pinch yourself. And fail to get out of the nightmare. Once the movie is FINALLY over, you are engulfed by an overwhelming feeling of guilt for having sat through this atrociously regressive cringe-fest.
A film like Raksha Bandhan is a slap across the face of our society. Yes, it talks about a serious issue like the dowry system, but more so, because of how the maker has packaged and conveniently sold a film that preaches that women have no agency whatsoever, as a ‘woke drama’. The success of the film is in fact a reflection of how deeply patriarchy is engrained in the very core of our society; of how oblivious women are about their own situations, and how much we have normalized male chauvinism.