Director: Amit Ravindernath Sharma
Cast: Neena Gupta, Gajraj Rao, Ayushmann Khurrana, Sanya Malhotra, Surekha Sikri, Sheeba Chaddha
It’s tempting to turn a film like Badhaai Ho into a full-blown comedy. The concept – of a middle-class 50-something couple (of “grandparental” age) caught in the throes of an unplanned pregnancy – might have remained light-hearted within the norms of another culture. Case in point: Father of the Bride 2, where Diane Keaton’s late pregnancy even clashes with her daughter’s. Such situations can afford to appear charming, and secondary, when the family in question is answerable to nobody but themselves. They can afford to be cheeky when the environment isn’t at odds with the subject. But in a nation of closed doors and tight closets, the situation is destined to turn into a social predicament. It is destined to test generational bonds when anyone’s business is everyone’s business; “What will people say?” is more of a lifestyle than a reaction here.
What Badhaai Ho mostly succeeds at – apart from weaving an enjoyable yarn out of this problem – is its ability to identify precisely the kind of homegrown protagonists that need such an intervention. The Kaushik family is a collection of conservative faces that are, thanks to the clever setup, forced to go from people (society) to person (individual). The progressive prism of advanced child-bearing is merely a narrative device to realize their rehabilitation.
For example, some of the funniest moments of Badhaai Ho – those that involve poor Jitender (a supremely empathetic Gajraj Rao) and Priyamvada (an inspired Neena Gupta) coming to terms with, and then trying to break, the news of their ‘mistake’ to the crabby grandmother and their two sons – aren’t actually funny. Under normal circumstances, the sight of two crimson-faced adults being judged by their own family members is supposed to be awkward and messy.
But consider the circumstances designed by the film’s writers: Jitender is a veteran ticket-checker in the Indian Railways. You could say his job is to maintain civic sanity. They live in the government quarters of Delhi’s Lodhi colony. They are the system. He is the beta male of a family whose widowed dadi has carried on the patriarchal legacy of her late husband by bossing over her daughter-in-law. The flat is barely big enough to accommodate the five existing members. Priyamvada is an overbearing mother; her mollycoddling is based on being an “example” of control to her sons. Nakul (Khurrana; with a name that invokes the maleness of the Mahabharata), the older brother, is the chief ragger in his gang of childhood friends. He is dating a colleague (Sanya Malhotra) who belongs to an upper-class household. He hopes to impress her single mother (Sheeba Chaddha; humanizes the snooty Delhi caricature) by being the perfect family man. Therefore, the humour doesn’t lie in what happens to these characters; it lies in the irony that it happens to these characters. No other family might have been as inadequately prepared as this one. The Kaushiks embody that massy mix of goodness and backwardness; they deserve to be transformed, even if it means a trial by reputation.
The redemption arcs of the grandmother and the son are satisfying; they are reflective of two different and highly contradictory schools of thought, each with their own internal conflicts and resolutions. The scenes responsible for their change of heart are simplistic but effective – there’s nothing like the bitchy outsider in cinema to unite a warring family. A more evocative scene is the one that outlines the couple’s sudden dip in social status – they watch, stunned, as a boy dances effeminately on stage while his mortified father walks away. Their family, too, has temporarily shunned them. The parallels are startling; are they now as much of an outcast as a gay man at a Punjabi wedding?
Even the nature of the problem isn’t all that gimmicky. An accidental pregnancy lays bare the skewed gender politics and rooted hypocrisy of a middle-class upbringing – Jitender becomes a stud and love-guru for the senior males at a wedding, while Priyamvada is forced to hide her baby-bump and slut-shamed by her own sisters. The doctor looks impressed, and the nurse, mortified. It also gives Ayushmann Khurrana the opportunity to play the most Ayushmann Khurrana role possible – a mumbling, exasperated, grumpy and disapproving North Indian youngster perpetually trapped in a red-blooded state of existentialism.
There’s something profoundly honest about Neena Gupta’s silences while the world explodes around her. It’s a testament to the art of casting that the film is allowed to hinge on an actress in the position to draw from her own fierce individuality and life experience in the face of similar odds. Even the timeless Surekha Sikri, as the ancient grandmother, gets to be the most dramatic version of herself – for once, when the emotional stakes are high.
Most Hindi films that are allegedly about “old” love end up employing the very gaze they set out to criticize. They try to convince us that our parents and grandparents are capable of romantic feelings, too, but refuse to explore their desires beyond platonic hints of fondness and the occasional retro song. This is symbolic of a culture that struggles to view its elders as sexual beings. Badhaai Ho addresses this chasm through two separate scenes. The first involves the night of conception. Jitender cheers his wife up by reading her some of his own published poetry. We hear the rumbling of clouds, and rainfall; the camera settles on the wet window while he rambles on, and the moment fades out. The chemistry is palpable, but the film – in the hands of a relatively young (38-year-old) director – seems to admit here that this is as far as we can push it when we imagine the escapades of an older couple. There’s also a hint in the age-gap between the two sons. Nakul is at least ten years older than his sibling – evidently, the parents’ passion is no one-off.
The second is the song Sajan Bade Senti, during which two spectrums of affection are juxtaposed against each other. In one, a frisky Nakul chases his girlfriend around an empty bungalow in anticipation of their big night. In the other, Jitender steals bashful glances at a radiant Priyamvada at a chaotic wedding function; he grins, she blushes. It’s almost as if the first language of love has matured into the second. The funny part is that Badhaai Ho makes it impossible to tell one from the other. Does the impatience come first, or the pregnant pause?