Director: Shashank Khaitan
Cast: Ishaan Khatter, Janhvi Kapoor
I think the way to enjoy Dhadak is to completely forget about Sairat. But those of us who’ve seen Sairat know that this is impossible. Because Nagraj Manjule’s 2016 Marathi film was a landmark. Sairat combined swoony romance with a searing critique of the caste system. So we danced in a joyous frenzy to Zingaat but we exited the theatre, scarred forever. Simmering beneath the story of star-crossed lovers, was a seething rage. Nagraj, a Dalit himself, exerted complete control over the narrative, which had startling authenticity and great depth.
Dhadak is the reworking of this intimate-yet-epic story for Hindi audiences. The film plays like agreeable, mid-level restaurant cuisine versus a Michelin-star meal. Those who haven’t had the latter might be satisfied. But those of us who’ve enjoyed the richer, more gutting experience will have a hard time making peace.
To begin with, director Shashank Khaitan transplants the story. Sairat was set in Bittergaon in Maharashtra and Hyderabad. Dhadak moves to Udaipur and Kolkata. Nagraj selected debutants who had no acting ambitions and knew little about films or filmmaking. But Shashank is presenting star newcomers Janhvi Kapoor and Ishaan Khatter. The story, about a lower-caste boy falling in love with an upper-caste girl, has been adapted to the new surroundings. This includes a mystifying change to the memorable end – I still haven’t figured out why this was done. In keeping with the traditions of Dharma Productions, the textures have been prettified and polished. Udaipur has been beautifully shot by Vishnu Rao. Parthavi wears gorgeous Manish Malhotra-designed salwar suits and in the second half, when the runaway couple is struggling to find food and shelter, her hair is still perfectly in place. Though thankfully some of the industrial-strength mascara comes off.
Sairat was raw – when Parshya and Archie end up in a slum in Hyderabad, you could almost smell the toilet that was making her retch. She was from a rich home and her struggle to adjust to poverty was piercing – there was heart-breaking moment in which Parshya had to buy a bottle of mineral water because she couldn’t drink what he could. But Shashank, who has also written the screenplay, doesn’t want to make the circumstances too uncomfortable for either his characters or for his audiences. So Parthavi and Madhukar end up in a nice hostel with a kindly host who even offers Madhukar a glass of wine. She doesn’t know how to wash clothes but that’s the extent of her culture shock. We don’t see them suffer and therefore our emotional investment is much less.
Parthavi also has little of the backbone that Archana did. Archie was a superbly written character. This was a teenager who rode her brother’s Bullet bike and a tractor. She was assertive and wasn’t afraid to make her affection for Parshya obvious. In a memorable scene in their college classroom, she stares at him for so long that he leaves out of sheer embarrassment. Like Archie, Parthavi is spoilt but we don’t see the strength, so her transformation from a young girl to a woman is less convincing. This is the type of girl who screams because there is a lizard in the room. The hero’s friends, so memorable in Sairat, are wasted here. And the villains of the piece, her father and brother, are additional weak spots. Ashutosh Rana, expressing cruelty through glowering eyes, is too old school to be effective.
Where Shashank scores is the magical soundtrack by Ajay-Atul and his leads – Ishaan and Janhvi are both immensely watchable. He is the better actor by a mile. Ishaan goes from besotted lover to confused and afraid runaway without missing a beat. His performance combines innocence and maturity. Janhvi’s range is less but she is endearing and assured. The nepotism debate be dammed – these two are fine additions to Hindi cinema and Shashank has handled them well.
Shashank is the successful maker of frothy romances. Here he steps out of his comfort zone but not enough to tackle head-on, the ugly truth of caste. The hurdles are more palatable and consequently, synthetic. I had described his second film Badrinath Ki Dulhania as a dose of feminism-lite. Well, think of Dhadak as Sairat-lite.