Director: Harshvardhan Kulkarni
Writers: Akshat Ghildial, Suman Adhikary
Cast: Rajkummar Rao, Bhumi Pednekar, Seema Pahwa, Sheeba Chaddha, Lovleen Mishra, Nitesh Pandey, Shashi Bhushan, Chum Darang and Deepak Arora
Cinematographer: Swapnil S Sonawane ISC
Editor: Kirti Nakhwa
A fleeting moment in Badhaai Ho sets the stage for Badhaai Do, its spiritual successor. At a Meerut wedding, a mortified man storms off when he sees his son dancing effeminately on stage. Observing them are the film's protagonists, a middle-aged couple grappling with an unplanned pregnancy. Their faces drop. It takes the sight of a gay youngster at a North Indian wedding – the ultimate social stigma – for the 50-something couple to realize the 'shame' of their own situation. The stigma is not something the two closeted protagonists of Badhaai Do, Shardul Thakur (Rajkummar Rao) and Suman Singh (Bhumi Pednekar), are prepared to face. (In fact, Shardul looks like the future of that youngster; his overt masculinity – as a muscular, mustached cop working at an all-female police station – atones for a queer boyhood). So the two enter into a marriage of convenience to hide their sexual orientation from their pushy families. Of course, the arrangement is not as sound as they imagine. Of course, a showdown with society is imminent.
Much like the first film, the psychology is well designed. Shardul's identity is at odds with his inherent chauvinism and moral policing of his job. Suman's career as a physical education teacher – traditionally a man's job – teases the lesbian stereotype. You can also see why the cultural stakes are higher: a lavender marriage, a desire to be parents, an Arunachali partner. It's not just because the movie wants to cover more bases than other recent LGBTQ dramedies. Characters like Shardul and Suman are more self-aware and invested in practical solutions because of where they come from. As residents of modern-day Uttarakhand (Dehradun), they dare to dream harder because of the influx of liberal tourists; they've probably observed enough outsiders to know that romantic possibilities and legal loopholes exist. Living a happy sham seems more plausible than suppressing their truths, or worse, fighting for acceptance.
Their agency is also subconsciously influenced by their families. The reason Suman agrees to a hustle is because she's seen her parents scam the system for their son – it's established early that a fake birth certificate allows the 21-year-old boy to play under-19 football. The ten-year age gap between the siblings suggests that, like the central couple of Badhaai Ho, Suman's parents aren't as loveless as their peers: a trait that likely inspires Suman to want companionship by hook or crook. Seeing her father aspiring to look young for the students who frequent his Xerox shop furthers her sense of passion. Similarly, Shardul's family is not totally regressive. The film opens with them considering a Muslim bride for him out of desperation. His mother (a standout Sheeba Chaddha) is a widow who's a bit more aloof than her nosy relatives. Shardul suspects that being gay is, in their eyes, a crime only slightly worse than marrying out of caste or not marrying at all. All hope is not lost. As a result, the inevitable coming-around of some members is not forced – the writing stays realistic about their conservatism, but it also admits that time is the only healer. This in turn allows the film to culminate in not one but two endings: the first for (bittersweet) life, the second for (sweet) storytelling.
At first, it seems odd that musical montages account for the more fertile portions of Badhaai Do. Parts that most other movies might have waxed dramatic about are rushed through here. A song scores their wedding, a song scores their Goa honeymoon where Suman tags along with Shardul and his boyfriend, a song scores Suman's new relationship, a song scores Shardul's new relationship, an interlude scores Suman's partner (Chum Darang) moving in with them. It doesn't help that the soundtrack is painfully generic. There's also very little acknowledgment of Shardul and Suman as sexual beings. It's almost as though the film is shy about the very people it sets out to humanize. Badhaai Ho did the same thing with Gajraj Rao and Neena Gupta; the camera settled on a wet window during their night of conception. But there's a flipside, too. Not fussing over the "landmarks" – the wooing, the meet-cutes, the sex – tends to normalize their identity. It frees the film from the cishet lens of its setting, and democratizes the nature of intimacy. By focusing on the follies of their arrangement, such films convey that finding love is simpler than finding dignity. Even Shardul's proposal to Suman isn't milked; the quickness of it all proves that these are adults who've suffered too long to be surprised by an idea like this.
Badhaai Do also resists the temptation of presenting an "equal" narrative. In keeping with the patriarchy of the region, the film does not pretend to afford Suman the same catharsis as Shardul. His story feels a little more fuller than hers, because the fact is that when things go wrong, it's the woman who bears the brunt of public scrutiny. Just as the mother is slut-shamed in Badhaai Ho, the blame for not having a baby is bestowed on Suman during their Diwali visit. Everyone is quick to question her body, even though both of them are swimming against the same tide. Her closet isn't the same as his either – it's eventually up to him to bat for the both of them. It's not the wokest of perspectives, but at least it stays true to the male entitlement of their surroundings.
With Badhaai Do, the Ayushmann-ification of Rajkummar Rao is complete. He borrows Khurrana's ripped gym body from Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui and his conflict from Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan. He does a better drunk scene than he used to. But given that his previous film was Hum Do Humare Do – where he hires fake parents to impress the girl he loves – it's become difficult to tell one Rao character from another. Or a bad performance from a good one. The same applies to Bhumi Pednekar. Both have an uncanny knack for body language, like character actors playing lead roles. I'd still be hard-pressed to remember a dramedy solely for them; they exist at an awkward intersection of merging into the background and standing out.
Which brings me to the one drawback of Badhaai Do. Since Dum Laga Ke Haisha, there's been a sameness about the Hindi small-town oeuvre – I challenge you to not be confused between the families/places/quirks of a Bareilly Ki Barfi, a Shubh Mangal Saavdhan, a Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan or a Badhaai Ho. It's tough to tell the people from the problems. It's impossible to tell one rousing moment from another (for instance, a pride parade mask in this film does the job of a cape in SMZS). Even the veteran actors (Seema Pahwa, Sheeba Chaddha) overlap. Badhaai Do tries to diversify the template – Arunachali actress Chum Darang is not a token addition – but the fundamental issue is the same: Situating a progressive awakening in a small-minded habitat is too easy. The ideological contrast is too binary. Risky topics are plunged into with a safety harness. Deriving entertainment from the ways of middle India is starting to get reductive. It borders on the infantilization of rural characters in urban comedies. Most of them are played for eye rolls or facepalms. Badhaai Do, like the others, takes two steps forward in terms of social significance. But I'm beginning to notice that it first takes a few steps backward to get a running start. At some point, this technique will wear off. For now, though, the finish line is all that matters.