When Abhishek Kapoor’s Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui (2021) came out last year, it felt as though the small-town social dramedy and its champion Ayushmann Khurrana had reached peak fatigue. There was a set template for the story, which was always set in a tier-two city, involved a family with eccentric characters, and had a plot that followed the same pattern while treating the audience like school children in need of instruction. All that changed were the social issue being tackled by the film and Khurrana’s hairstyle. Since his debut in the winsome Vicky Donor (2012), which touched upon issues of fertility and sperm donors, Khurrana has done something few actors have managed: Birthed his own genre. There are other actors like Rajkummar Rao (Stree), Kartik Aaryan (Luka Chuppi), Sanya Malhotra (Pagglait) and Kriti Sanon (Mimi) who have found success with the small-town social dramedy, but no one has done it quite like Khurrana. Since 2015, practically every film of Khurrana has seen him playing a hero through whom the audience can be educated.
However, Khurrana’s and Rao’s recent releases suggest the audiences have tired of this formula, which initially seemed like a crowd favourite. The milieu of Bhopal, Lucknow, hinterland Rajasthan, Gujarat, Bihar have become reflections of one another. Actors like Seema Pahwa, Gajraj Rao, Brijendra Kala and Sheeba Chadha have by now played umpteen iterations of the annoying members of the hero’s extended family. The ‘quirky’ humour has a sameness to it, and the screenwriting has become increasingly pedantic. As a result, this particular brand of social dramedy feels insufferable and it may have hampered the commercial chances of more perceptive films from the genre, like Harshvardhan Kulkarni’s Badhaai Do and Anubhuti Kashyap’s Doctor G.
Both films, despite glowing reviews, haven’t drawn audiences despite being charming, sharply observant and heartbreaking in a good way. Badhaai Do writer Akshat Ghildial chafed at the idea of categorising films set in small towns as a separate genre. “Even Andhadhun (2018) should be called a ‘small town’ film because it’s set in Pune,” said Ghildial, “but the characters are slightly more urban, English-speaking, so we won’t call it that.” He pointed out how many Nineties’ movies were set in towns or villages in Punjab, but weren’t subjected to this sort of cinematic geotagging. Ghildial said Badhaai Ho (2018) wasn’t a ‘small town’ film per se, since much of it took place in Delhi. “But because the film is set around a family, whose ethos is small town, people tend to club it under that genre,” he said.
Ghildial and Suman Adhikary began working on the script around lavender marriages, which would become Badhaai Do, back in 2017. Production began in late 2020 with Harshvardhan Kulkarni at the helm and at the time, the writers realised there may be fatigue setting in around films like the one they were trying to make. Ghildial, Adhikary and Kulkarni weren’t particularly bothered because they thought they had gone about the job with the right intent. “We were mindful about not writing a small town character according to someone living in Mumbai,” said Adhikary. All three spent over six months rewriting Ghildial and Adhikary’s first draft. They sharpened the characters, added subtext to scenes and Kulkarni introduced a few elements, like the bittersweet climax.
Ghildial says the commercial Hindi film industry is responsible for diluting the small town social dramedy. Everything successful inspires knockoffs — “After all, we’re talking about an industry which started replicating item numbers around womens’ names after Munni Badnaam Huyi became a hit!” — and as he pointed out, “If you’re going to keep photocopying a photocopy, the ink is eventually going to fade.”
Doctor G’s origin story, by Sourabh Bharat and Vishal Wagh, goes back even further, to 2014. Bharat (himself a doctor) was visiting his wife, a gynaecologist, during her M.D residence. That’s when he found out about her male classmate, who was one of the two men in the entire gynaecology department. “We didn’t know who would be cast. Only much later did it become an Ayushmann Khurrana film,” said Bharat. It was only after he and Wagh jammed with writer Sumit Saxena and director Anubhuti Kashyap that they discovered the complexities of Uday, and fleshed him into a three-dimensional human being. “Yaar, I was hired for the wrong reasons. Because I’d written that Pyaar Ka Punchnama monologue, I was supposed to bring in the young, urban audience for the film,” said Saxena. He flipped the script on the makers by starting the film with a monologue that bravely invokes Kabir Singh. “I wanted to use pop-culture references to get the audience to the place where I want them, before they get slapped!” he said. Speaking of the fatigue around social dramedies, Saxena said he knew he didn’t want the script to sound like it had been written by people who had looked up ‘toxic male behaviour’ online before sitting down to write Doctor G.
According to Bharat, Kashyap kept rejecting anything she felt was on-the-nose or preachy. “Her entire POV was because we’re addressing a social issue, is reason enough to not be preachy or deliver a sermon,” says Bharat, “It should be felt.” Kashyap also introduced the character of Ashok, who occupies a majority of the second half and is a central part of Uday’s re-education. The film isn’t satisfied with Uday finding his place in the leaderboard of the gynaecology department. He has to lose his “male touch” not just in his clinic, but also out in the world. This was a very conscious storytelling decision on Kashyap’s part. “If you see most of these social dramedies in the last couple of years, they have one issue, and the entire film is built around it,” said Kashyap, who isn’t a fan of films with obvious messages. “In our film, the core plot is about a man’s journey to lose the ‘male touch’, there are also many subplots around him that chip away at his long-held beliefs and trigger the reformation.”
In Badhaai Do, both Ghildial and Adhikary knew they didn’t want to end the film with a monologue on stage – something they had seen in similar films. “Both Suman and I have worked in advertising, so we call this monologue the ‘product window section’ of the film,” said Ghildial. “Films are not ads, they need to be felt,” he added. Instead, there is an exquisitely performed where Rajkummar Rao’s Shardul comes out to his entire extended family and unapologetically owns his identity as a gay man. When Sheeba Chadha’s character follows Shardul to the terrace, she puts her hand on his heart — it was a moment that wasn’t written into the script. “Sheebaji said Mrs Thakur has not come to terms with her son's sexual orientation yet, but she knows that her son needs her at this point,” recalled Ghildial, “This instinct and intuition is what a good actor brings to their part.”
The recent failures of the small town social dramedies might be good news for the genre because it may push the industry to rethink the formulae that have become predictable. Adhikary said, “In every genre, you need to have your own take. It’s easy to follow ‘viable’ formulas, but first your story needs to have a soul. It needs to be honest, true, and real. It is all about discovering the truth.” Kulkarni wondered if a film’s marketing machinery needs a complete overhaul. “I’m not blaming the marketing team here, because even I signed off on that trailer. But how does one communicate that we have more in our film, without giving the entire film away?” he said. It will be interesting to see if their contemporaries look at the craft in Badhaai Do and Doctor G, or their box office numbers. Either way, it means fewer small town social dramedies being made for the wrong reasons.