Badhaai Do, starring Rajkummar Rao and Bhumi Pednekar, has a sparkling, subversive energy. Rao plays a gay man who suggests that he and Pednekar's character, a lesbian, marry each other to get their parents off their backs. A lavender marriage, he promises that they can live together like room-mates, pursuing love and lust with other same-sex partners on the side.
But it is not just the spine of the story that is subversive. The subversion resides in the smallest of details, like a throwaway line about sexual positions in gay sex, or the zoned out, uninterested mother figure (Sheeba Chaddha). Even the setting — Dehradun — is not quite "small town", not quite "urban". The tropes of the genre, like the first time lovers lock eyes, too, have been challenged — the first time lovers meet in this movie, there is shit and spit involved. The most sensuous scene in Badhaai Do involves blood in a clinic — arguably the most anesthetic of places.
Over a zoom call, co-writer Akshat Ghildial and director Harshavardhan Kulkarni break down the various decisions they made, questioned, consulted on, and amended. Edited for length and clarity.
Let's start with the two main characters Shardul and Sumi. It is not just their names, but also what they each represent that is unique. Where did they come from? How did they change over the drafts?
Akshat: In the first draft the character was Pammi not Sumi. We then decided to name her Suman, which is the name of the other writer on the film (Suman Adhikary). It was a bit of bullying from our side, because he has a name that can be used for both men and women. Sumi's characteristics, however, were the same through the drafts. She was always a PT teacher. But the film was initially set in Delhi. Then, Harsh read the first draft. He wanted to open the world up a little bit, and we, then, ended up re-looking at the whole thing.
Harsh always felt that we had a generic male character. He said to give Shardul all the markers for a heterosexual man, with a job which is akin to authority in our world. He is masculine in the physical sense, too. Then, we started thinking of his family. In a small-town setting, he is the jewel of the family, because he is surrounded by women. Everyone has a stake in his life. Despite being a man, he really doesn't have much agency. That was something we worked on — a character you think is a "Hindi film hero", and then take all the agency from him.
Harsh: The cop made it even more difficult for him (to be openly gay) — the stakes were even higher. At one point we even discussed him being part of the Armed Forces but that was too constricting for us, so the next best option was a man in uniform. For the longest time, these were the oppressors. It just became even more interesting for us to explore that.
How did Delhi become Dehradun, then?
Harsh: We were just starting our recce and the first wave of COVID-19 hit. Then, it was very tough to shoot in Delhi. Akshat is from Dehradun, so we started thinking what if the film is set in a smaller town? If they are in a lavender marriage in Vashi in Mumbai, you can get lost. Even in a tower, nobody is going to bother you, you can live your life without intrusion. That is when we realized what if they are living in a place like Dehradun with intrusive neighbors, nearby family members? It just makes it difficult to live a lie. Our only problem is will a pride parade in Dehradun look believable? That is when co-director Prateek Vats sent us a YouTube link to a pride parade in Dehradun. So, it all just fell in place.
When you moved your location, did you rework the dialogues, dialect, accents or is Delhi not too different from Dehradun?
Akshat: We didn't change much. These families were both from Eastern UP — that was from the beginning. That is why Seema Pahwa and Sheeba Chaddha's characters call Shardul "Bhayya" instead of "Beta". Dialect-wise, it rooted the characters.
Harsh: Visually, actually, it became very fresh. Even the pride parade on that flyover was so wonderful, with a traffic jam underneath. We also had the community show up for this scene, 50-60 people coming from Delhi. Everything we tried to do was as authentic as possible.
Akshat: In fact, we brought the entire city to a standstill that day. We also shot in a real police station, real schools, on the streets. This was all possible because of the permissions we got.
You both actually consulted within the LGBTQ community for this film. Manish Gaekwad is credited as a consultant. What were these conversations like? What were things you reconsidered?
Harsh: That conversation around being "versatile" was one thing. (Shardul and his boyfriend discussing who will "top", while Sumi stands outside their door overhearing it, amusedly) See, both Suman and Akshat were doing their own thorough research. But there were many things we were questioning — like the many things that Guru (Gulshan Devaiah) says towards the end.
Akshat: We were ratifying a lot of things with Manish — What do you think? Does this not work? Do you think this is correct? Is this how people feel when they can't come out? When we narrated the first script, Manish was there. When Shardul's character says, "Varna apne aap ko gay kaun bolta hai?" Manish told us how truthful it was because the word "gay" comes with its own baggage.
Harsh: One of the scenes we cracked with Manish — one of my favourites — is when we plug in that Shardul watches wrestling. We discussed this — does Shardul ever feel that someone from his family is not gay? So that whole scene where he sees his nephew watching the wrestling match, and he is concerned, all of that came from the conversation. It is a wonderful scene, especially the way Sumi is giving him those looks of judgment.
Akshat: We also had a narration with the community at large — around 20 people — also people from the crew who were members of the community. For example, Rohit Chaturvedi (the costume designer) asked us why Sumi is saying so strongly, when she is looking for an apartment, that she likes the house but she and her lover are lesbians? Rohit asked why are we suddenly making them into activists. It doesn't ring true with this film. The larger representation is already happening in the pride parade. Sometimes you try to get to some milestones — like a character asserting herself. But he said that the need was not there at all. These things helped.
Harsh: At the narration, there was a big discussion, an argument within the community, about Guru's character. Guru doesn't want to have children — that was an addition that came from the suggestions.
There were tweaks happening till the very end. We changed the edit also. For example, the rain sequence when Shardul tells Sumi, "Sex karte hain, thoda sa." We wanted to stage the scene like a big Bollywood moment. We made it for the homophobes wishing for them to end up making out. But while shooting, we had improv-ed that scene where Raj and Bhumi kissed a little. Cut to them brushing their teeth. But while screening the film, we were told two or three times that we don't show same-sex kissing but we are showing this. It made sense, so we then removed it. Now they just come close. There was constant consultation.
Why wasn't there a same-sex kiss? Were there limits you had in your head, that you don't want to cross for reasons — commercial or otherwise?
Harsh: Nothing of that sort. Even in my first film Hunterr (2015), I made the whole film without any love-making scenes. It just ended with a kiss. All the distributors and producers said, "Yaar adult film hai. Adult toh bana nah?" That is when I went and shot three love-making sequences. I am more interested in romance — more emotional, heartfelt, even mushy.
Akshat: The film is also an exploration of their inner world more than their physicality. That ghutan, loneliness, isolation.
Harsh: Like that injection scene — there is touch, feeling, breathing etc. That play of romance is even more beautiful than showing a kiss for me.
Tell me about that pride parade sequence. You could have cranked up the drama by making Shardul participate in it, but he is only standing in the periphery. The background music was already thumping emotionally, we would have even bought it, maybe. But you did not do that. Were there discussions about whether Shardul should join the parade or not?
Harsh: He was always supposed to be on the periphery of the pride. See, even what he ended up doing was heroic. If he joined the parade, it would have been too fantastical. Also, our end is not this moment. The story is still something else. If we did something more in the pride parade, the story would have ended. Also it couldn't have been the end, because the story is not just about Shardul, but Shardul and Sumi.
Akshat: It was always him itching to be on that side, yet standing outside. Even when Sumi comes and spots Shardul, because she has been in this sham marriage for so long, she knows how paranoid he is, and immediately puts the mask on. Because she is not sure how her participation will be taken by his institution. Through the progression of the story, there are two people, polar opposites, in a sham marriage, but in that moment, we are showing that they have completed a journey together. When he puts on a mask, everyone is jumping, but she is looking at him with admiration. Even after he comes out, he calls her, not Guru. That was also important, that their relationship becomes special by the end of the film.
Can we talk about Sheeba Chaddha's character? She's so funny, yet so tragic. What went into crafting this character?
Akshat: One of the things you observed was that the film is subversive. Sure, the idea in itself is subversive. But then Harsh said, what if we have a mother who is not invested, doesn't want to take responsibility? Usually the mother-son equation is the holy grail of relationships. It, then, became a tightrope walk, because her reactions felt looney. Even Sheeba would be so confused about the character, but she cracked it on the first go. Then, it became about this mother who is looking for validation from the matriarch. Even her character arc comes to fruition when Shardul comes out to the family. She is the one who comforts and embraces him without judgment.
Once we cracked her character, we could then find something interesting — like the scene where she reads instructions to Sumi, or when Sumi comes in lingerie.
Harsh: We all used to call it the "Poonam Pandey scene". (laughs) The idea was to make a mother who doesn't want to be the sacrificing mother all the time. She was also a little slower, because over a period of time if you are not working, you become lazier, slower. Your reaction time, too, becomes slower. But when it came to matters of the heart, she was there instantly. Sheeba just became that, taking it to some other level itself.
Akshat: The scene where she was reading from the page Harsh was laughing so hard I had to hold his shoulder, "Yaar apna shoot ho raha hai, sync sound chal raha hai!"
I am very interested in this idea of Shardul developing his muscles. It is almost like he is becoming his own object of desire. How did you come up with this?
Akshat: His character is full of contradictions — heavily built but sweet at heart. The physicality was important because we also have this backstory of this guy who wanted to become something else, ending up becoming a cop. We also thought it would be interesting if he is chauvinistic — he wants to assert himself, enforcing it on Sumi, who is too feisty and so she pushes back. But he is also not the kind of guy with any agency to push her. So, the outer shell is all strong, but his interior is timid.
But he also slaps his lover.
Akshat: We wanted to create people, not ideas. He has to have all his limitations, his contradictions. If you create ideas, people don't feel that much. A character becomes relatable when their warts and flaws are seen.
Harsh: Even his conditioning in the feudal set-up. But slowly by spending more time with Sumi and then Guru, it is slowly chipping away. Even at the end when Sumi is caught, he calls her up and says, "Please mere baare mein mat bolna", which is so unheroic and so wrong. And once you let actors play the role, they just come up with gems, like Rajkummar tapping his muscular arms, but also his uniform, saying he will protect Sumi.