Director: Anand Tiwari
Writer: Sumit Batheja
Cast: Madhuri Dixit Nene, Gajraj Rao, Ritwik Bhowmik, Barkha Singh, Srishti Shrivastava, Rajit Kapur, Sheeba Chadha, Simone Singh
Tejas Patel (Ritwik Bhowmik) falls in love with Esha Hansraj(Barkha Singh), the daughter of a Manhattan NRI couple. The strict, stinking rich and overly conservative parents (Sheeba Chadha and Rajit Kapur) meticulously judge Tejas. They then want to meet his parents, because of course, it is all about loving the family and marriages are between two families. The Hansrajs travel to India and land up in Vrindavan Society where Tejas’s doting mother Pallavi Patel (Madhuri Dixit) and his father, society chairman, Manohar Patel (Gajraj Rao) lives with their fiery LGBTQIA+ ally and activist Tara (Srishti Shrivastava).
But this is not the love story of Tejas and Esha. This movie is about Pallavi ben — the middleclass Gujarati housewife, the dutiful mother of two, and the life of Vrindavan Society. The family drama over a marriage alliance soon turns into a preachy social-message-conveying movie with Pallavi suddenly accepting that she has been a closeted lesbian all this while. This turns the world of the Patels upside down — the inter-personal relationships are questioned, their bonds put to test. The situation becomes more complicated with a video of the confession going viral and becoming the talk of the town/Vridavan Society. And it doesn’t help that the Hansrajs are homophobes. With his wedding and future with Esha on the line, Tejas reveals his true colours (which aren’t the rainbow one needs or wants). Even Tara doesn’t hesitate to use her mother to further her own agenda. It is a story of manipulation, love, family, women’s agency (or the lack of it), and homophobia.
Anand Tiwari, the director, starts off as a radical but soon gets scared and cops out midway, plonking the well-intentioned film into the cesspool of stereotypes and easy resolutions. He attempts to address the taboo associated with the LGBTQIA+ community and the homophobia prevalent even in the upper echelons of the society. He also attempts to give a woman her agency back and thus empowering her. But he does so in a manner that is too safe, too sanitised, and too simplistic. Hence, the end result is underwhelming and often even superficial. The worst is the climax. If you thought we have moved beyond using cancer as a plot device and a way to reach an easy resolution to complex problems, Tiwari has other ideas.
Tiwari tries to flip the idea that the West is more progressive by creating NRIs who are more regressive and conservative than Indians living in India. But, the writing creates cardboard characters out of the Hansrajs — stereotypes that defy the purpose of subverting stereotypes.
Sumit Batheja builds his story on a stunning concept. While India is slowly warming up to the LGBTQIA+ community and their stories are finding their way into Bollywood, it is mostly confined to the younger generation. The parents do the ‘coming-of-age’ bit while the child comes out as gay/lesbian/trans. Here he flips the scene and the mother is the one who comes out as a lesbian. In a country where traditionally mothers are worshipped as gods and treated as servants who seldom have any say in anything, this is quite a ‘brave’ concept to pull off. But the problem is, the writer and the director get smug after cracking the concept and then play it too safe, turning the brave into the bland. Batheja’s treatment is similar to what he did in Jug Jugg Jeeyo — serving a serious concept, wrapped in song and dance. While Jug Jugg Jeeyo was entertaining, this one fails to create the right balance.
Pallavi is the quintessential middle-class Bollywood mother, dutifully serving the children and the husband, having no agency of her own. Her existence and identity seems to be dependent on the people around her. She is a great cook, a perfect homemaker, and also a helpful and loving neighbour. But since Pallavi is also Madhuri Dixit, she is also a great garba dancer and her makeup is always on fleek, even when she is sleeping. She is too perfect and hence her ‘flaws’ comes across as more pronounced. But her coming out seems too contrived — her accepting her own sexual identity seems too abrupt, without any compelling backstory propelling her towards it. While all her family members essentially remain the same people, self-centred and using Pallavi as their support system, their ‘coming-of age’ and ‘accepting’ her seems forced.
The English spouting NRI couple, who are more regressive than this Guajarati family is used as a stereotype and to evoke repulsion. In one scene, Sheeba’s character asks if the tea is made by a menstruating woman as she and her husband don’t have food touched, made, served by them. One wonders, if a woman with such a traditional/regressive value system would actually make menstruation, which is considered a taboo topic, part of a dinner table conversation. It just doesn’t add up. In another scene, Gajraj Rao’s character proudly announces that theirs is a family of ‘virgins’. Apparently, he has no clue about the word (the word doesn’t even rhyme with anything else…one wonders what word he mistook it for). It is just a mindless attempt at a joke that hardly lands. In one scene, this character is given another rather embarrassing moment when he consumes ‘Sambhogra’ — borders on the cringe. The only two scenes where the writing sparkles is the conversation among the women on the ropeway car and the lie detector scene. Sheeba is fiery and her dialogues are to the point. There is even a hint of smart writing and wit where Pallavi asks the meaning of being a lesbian and claiming she doesn’t fit into the said definition. But mostly, the writing remains preachy and banal and fails to do justice to the concept.
Sanyukta Kaza’s editing prevents the film from becoming a snoozefest but the length could definitely be trimmed. The cinematography of Debojeet Ray is nothing great. The garba scenes are nicely executed. But then most of the scenes have a dance video vibe. The high-contrast lighting creates an ambience that takes away from the realistic setting of the film.
It is a song-and-dance heavy film and the music by Souumil Shringarpure, Siddharth Mahadevan, Anurag Sharma, and Gourov Dasgupta adds some maja to the story but they are nothing magical or superlative. Although, one can add some of the songs to the garba playlist, by next Navaratri, we hope there would be better options.
After UP and the Hindi belt, Gujarat seem to be the next favourite location for Bollywood. After Jayeshbhai Jordaar, we have Maja Ma peddling the exotic Gujarat of Western gaze. Then we also have the Oscar contender.
Although a powerhouse performer, she is not really known for picking up unconventional roles. For Dixit, playing Pallavi Patel, a middle-aged Gujarati housewife and a mother of two grown-up children who comes out as a lesbian, can be regarded as a ‘bold’ move. Maybe it is also a desperate attempt to become relevant as an actor. She looks like a dream but doesn’t look the part. Instead of becoming the character and letting the actor in her shine, Madhuri Dixit plays Madhuri Dixit, the star, playing yet another character. In 2022, this approach doesn’t work, especially in a film like this. One also wonders why filmmakers still can’t treat her as the powerhouse actor she is and not the star that she was. It seems the attempt is always to milk her glamour quotient and dancing skills.
Gajraj Rao is a brilliant actor and as Manohar Patel, he is right in his comfort zone. He lends the character a lived-in feel and gives a pitch perfect performance. However, even Rao seems to be getting stuck in playing different versions of the same character. Be it Badhaai Ho or Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan, he is always the unassuming middle-class supportive husband sans any vice.
Same goes for Srishti Shrivastava, who plays Tara Patel. She is again the outspoken, woke girl who is quick to get into fights. She is effective as Tara but there is nothing new that she achieves as an actor. This is especially sad since she is again a great actor and her stage acts are a testimony of her versatility.
Ritwik Bhowmik as Tejas Patel is however very different from his Bandish Bandits and Modern Love acts. The actor is a breath of fresh air in a world that looks otherwise jaded. As the loving but self-cantered son who has no qualms in pushing his darling mother into the agnipariksha that is a lie-detector test for his own benefit or dragging her to a baba to get rid of her ‘ailment’, he is effective.
However, it is Simone Singh as Kanchan Adhia, who comes as a surprise package. A great mix of the fiery and the vulnerable, she is a delight to watch. One wishes she was given more screen space and not killed off to provide the complex story an easy and simplistic resolution. Her scene with Madhuri and Sheeba Chaddha is one of the few brilliant moments the film manages to create.
Coming to Sheeba Chaddha. The actor who can possibly even play a tree and grab eyeballs, as Pam Hansraj, is saddled here with a horrible accent that drags her down in every scene barring the one she has her outburst in Punjabi. In that one scene, she proves her mettle as an actor. But then, getting the accents right is also part of the actor’s job.
Talking about terrible accents, it is Rajit Kapoor as the regressive NRI dad Bob Hansraj, who takes the cake. Not sure if his voice was dubbed, but the accent is bizarrely bad so much so that it takes the focus away from the scene acting as a distraction. I don’t remember the last time, if ever, one had questioned Kapoor’s acting chops. He is effective as Hansraj but… getting the accents right is also part of the actor’s job.
Barkha Singh as Esha Hansraj is cute, Ninad Kamat as Moolchand Adhia makes his presence felt but his character arc is uneven and lacks depth and expanse for the actor to make a solid impact.
It is a clash of cultures — where one is more regressive than the other. It is a film deeply entrenched in patriarchy that tries hard to be ‘inclusive.’ It is again the whatsapp uncles’ version of woke. It is a radical concept that gets killed by the director’s stance to play it safe. It is a confused movie that struggles to find and then maintain its pitch. It seems like an issue-driven Ayushmann Khurrana film sans Khurrana, set in a Sooraj Barjatya world of lavish weddings and colourful festivals.
Watch it if you are a die-hard Madhuri Dixit fan, or if you want to watch Simone Singh give a stunning performance, or if you want to watch an Ayushmann Khurrana film without Ayushmann Khurrana, or if you just have Amazon Prime subscription and have exhausted their movie list.