Seeing Kartik (Ayushmann Khurrana) and Aman (Jitendra Kumar) dressed in superhero onesies, you immediately sense Shubh Mangal Zyada Savdhan is a parody. As they run to catch a train, it becomes clear that writer and director Hitesh Kewalya isn't just parodying Dilwale Dulhania Le Jaayenge (1995), he is also parodying our homophobia. Kartik and Aman are, finally, 2020's new Raj and Simran.
The film's subversions, though, are all on the nose. Kartik tweaks the lyrics of "Jack and Jill" and often breaks into a rendition of "Jack and Johnny". The Supreme Court's 2018 Article 377 verdict gives the film a climax. Moreover, Kewalya's reliance on comic relief demands that everything be exaggerated.
When Aman's father, Shankar Tripathi (Gajraj Rao) sees his son kiss Kartik, he vomits and then faints. Kartik has tied around his neck a rainbow flag when Tripathi beats him black and blue with a lathi, but rather than let us be affected, Kewalya distracts us with a catchy soundtrack. The light-hearted register of the film does not allow us horror or empathy. The film makes clear that patriarchs like Tripathi have corrupted families, but the script still panders to their sentiment. At best, the movie is a clever slogan.
Part of Actors Adda, a roundtable organised by Film Companion last year, Khurrana had made a careful distinction between "entertainment" and "messaging". A film's message, he suggested, could ride on the back of a film's capacity to entertain. The message, one inferred, must never come first. Having remained coyly apathetic, mainstream Bollywood has only recently begun dirtying its hands in 'issues'.
Films that try to fashion our values hardly have a precedence. On the odd occasion that filmmakers give up fears of controversy, they fall prey to more than one dilemma—"Am I being pedantic? Can a film educate and entertain? Will my film's message be bigger than my film?" Shubh Mangal Zyada Savdhan, Chhapaak, Thappad and Guilty all released in 2020. They each grapple with these concerns, but a bigger question haunts us viewers—Is a good heart enough for a film to be great art?
Though from time to time, Guilty makes all the right noises, the film, in the end, is let down by its operatic and far-fetched climax. Kanika Dhillon, who has written Guilty with Atika Chohan, again uses the mental health trope she had so finely employed in Judgementall Hai Kya (2019)
Chhapaak begins with chants of "We want justice!" Following the Nirbhaya gang rape on December 16, 2012, protesters, we see, have taken to Delhi's streets, demanding action and safety. Amongst these are also some victims of acid attacks. Largely ignored, they too want their stories to be included in the 'violence against women' narrative. With their faces disfigured forever, their pain requires addressal. Chhapaak, finally, tells us their story, but, sadly, doesn't allow to us become participants.
Early into Chhapaak, we see Malti (Deepika Padukone) lying on a street, writhing in pain. She has just been attacked with acid. Often relegated to narrow columns in newspapers, her loud screams are enough to bring home the barbarity of acid attacks. People later avert their gaze when they look at Malti. The film doesn't ever give us that choice. We're forced to confront both, Malti's mutilation and our own uneasiness. Gradually, we egg her on as she sets off on that journey from 'victim' to 'survivor'.
Written by Atika Chohan and director Meghna Gulzar herself, Chhapaak's every scene and dialogue either mentions the brutality of acid attacks or alludes to it. The film is unrelenting. Acid attacks clearly give the writers their focus, but they forget to widen their lens. As the end credits roll, we feel glad to have seen the film's protagonist having had battled the worst of odds, but we rarely feel the adversities she was overcoming could one day become ours. Steadfastly concerned with only Malti's courage, the film glosses over her frustrations, anger and doubts. Though Laxmi Agarwal, a real-life acid attack survivor, inspired Chohan and Gulzar when writing Malti, they failed to humanise her fully.
If "chhapaak" is the sound a pebble makes when it hits water, then Guilty is all about the ripple effect. The #MeToo movement doesn't just give this film its backdrop, it also dictates its trajectory. Vijay Pratap Singh aka VJ (Gurfateh Pirzada) is one of St Martin's most popular students. When Tanu (Akansha Ranjan Kapoor) accuses him of rape on Twitter, his girlfriend Nanki Datta (Kiara Advani) is seen passing through the seven stages of grief. In denial the one minute, she's then angry in the next.
Guilty, though, doesn't just tell us the story of Nanki. It has a greater ambition. It wants to explain the #MeToo movement. Starting with confessions on Twitter that all proved contagious, it then brings to Tanu's accusation the scrutiny of India's slow justice system. As lawyer Danish Ali Baig (Taher Shabbir) begins investigating her claims, we see the alleged incident of sexual violence through multiple perspectives, but we also see the many loopholes through which veracity could possibly fall.
Though from time to time, Guilty makes all the right noises, the film, in the end, is let down by its operatic and far-fetched climax. Kanika Dhillon, who has written Guilty with Atika Chohan, again uses the mental health trope she had so finely employed in Judgementall Hai Kya (2019). Nanki frequently has meltdowns and pops pills when she is overwhelmed, but instead of looking at her as afflicted, we only ever think of her as unreliable. Rather than concern itself with the horror of sexual violence, Guilty is so preoccupied with its 'he-said-she-said' drama, it fails to rise above its topicality.
As the end credits of Chhapaak roll, we feel glad to have seen the film's protagonist having had battled the worst of odds, but we rarely feel the adversities she was overcoming could one day become ours. Steadfastly concerned with only Malti's courage, the film glosses over her frustrations, anger and doubts.
Much like Guilty, Anubhav Sinha's Thappad too deals with the aftermath of a single incident. At a party he has thrown to celebrate his success at work, Vikram (Pavail Gulati) slaps his wife Amrita (Taapsee Pannu) in the presence of all his guests. Though this is the first time he has ever hit her, Amrita is suddenly made aware of his capacity to hurt. It's the microcosm of a single slap that then betrays the malaise of a more macro misogyny. A slap, we see, is ample proof of patriarchal violence.
At one point, Sinha places Amrita and her help Sunita (Geetika Vidya Ohlyan) in the same frame. Separated by a partition, you think you're seeing a mirror image. Then it hits you. There's very little that separates Sunita, someone who is beaten ruthlessly by her husband on a regular basis, and Amrita, who was just slapped once. They have both suffered domestic violence. They're both victims.
Though personable, Vikram's male entitlement is revealed only gradually. He rages against women drivers. He reprimands a woman who smokes. He doesn't know his way around his own kitchen. Rather than apologise to his wife, he somehow always makes himself the protagonist of every conversation. Amrita, on the other hand, refuses to budge, and in her stubborn want to get justice, we see her influence almost every other person in the film—her mother, brother, help and her lawyer.
Thappad, in the end, impacts us more because its structure doesn't pit Amrita against the rest of the world. She is very much fighting her way through it. She isn't disconnected from those she loves. She is as invested in their lives, as they are in hers. Amrita isn't just someone we root for. She is someone we relate to. Thappad does more than move us. It exemplifies a film's power of influence.
Shah Rukh Khan had once said, "I'm a great believer—honestly so, shamelessly so, vulgarly so—that cinema is for entertainment. If you want to send messages, there's the postal service." There's something old-fashioned about Khan's formulation. For the Hindi film industry, an entertainer has been considered a success when it moves the needle of your emotional barometer. Messages, on the other hand, are thought of as too scrupulous. At best, it's a token gift we give guests at the close of a fun party. Flawed as some of them are, it's heartening to see a handful of 2020 films trying hard to make the twain meet. Their execution might be faulty, but their intent is not contrived. Together, they remind us that it's only when we see our faults on screen, do we sometimes stop to see it in ourselves.