Director: Harshavardhan Kulkarni
Writers: Akshat Ghildial, Suman Adhikary, Harshavardhan Kulkarni
Cast: Rajkummar Rao, Bhumi Pednekar, Seema Pahwa, Sheeba Chaddha, Lovleen Mishra, Nitesh Pandey, Shashi Bhushan, Chum Darang and Deepak Arora
Cinematographer: Swapnil S Sonawane
Editor: Kirti Nakhwa
Badhaai Do is what you might call a late bloomer. The film, about a gay man and a gay woman in a lavender marriage, kicks into high gear in the last twenty minutes or so. As circumstances force Suman and Shardul to shed their camouflage of a happy, heterosexual couple, Badhaai Do finds its voice and purpose. The acting by Bhumi Pednekar and Rajkummar Rao is superb – both lay bare the keen anguish of the struggle for acceptance and what it means to finally reveal your truth. The writing by Suman Adhikary, Harshavardhan Kulkarni and Akshat Ghildial and staging by Kulkarni, who directed the film, is bang-on. And watch out for Sheeba Chaddha, delightful as Shardul’s meek, spaced-out mother, who shows us, without a single dialogue, what good parenting looks like. The scene between her and Shardul will melt even the most homophobic heart.
The path to this point however is strangely muddled, almost as though the film can’t decide what it wants to be. Badhaai Do has been described by its makers as a ‘spiritual sequel’ to Badhaai Ho, Amit Sharma’s excellent 2018 film about a middle-aged couple grappling with pregnancy. I’m assuming that ‘spiritual sequel’ means that this will be a franchise in which the makers tackle unconventional topics. Like the first film, Badhaai Do relies on humour to make a tricky subject accessible and palatable to a mainstream Hindi film audience. Which is a smart strategy, except that the blend of humour and the suffering inherently embedded in such a marriage is disjointed. The film lurches from situational comedy to the harshness of being queer in this country and back again with the background music insistently cuing us on when to laugh. Low sperm count and penis size become fodder for comedy as do nosy neighbours and women cops. The film begins with a scene in which Shardul’s extended family is somberly sitting and deciding if it’s okay to let him marry a Muslim colleague, which is of course the ultimate transgression in their eyes. This is played for laughs but given the horrific, polarised reality of contemporary India, the joke doesn’t quite land.
Badhaai Do is set between Haldwani and Dehradun. It’s the claustrophobic small-town, middle-class family set-up that we’ve seen before often – including Seema Pahwa who has almost become a totem of this sub-genre. Shardul is a cop. Suman is a physical education teacher. Shardul’s job is intrinsically at odds with who he is – at one point, he expresses wonder that a ‘gay aadmi is a policeman’ because ‘humari phatti hai police se.’
What’s interesting is that being gay doesn’t necessarily make Shardul more evolved. As Suman points out in a scene, he is sexist. He has inflated ideas about his muscles and his mardaangi. He can also be abusive and a drunk. But the film doesn’t fully explore these darker shades of his personality. Harshavardhan, whose first film Hunterrr cheerfully went into forbidden areas, sticks to a sunnier narrative. Though there is some fun to be had in a scene in which Shardul and Suman perform the husband-wife act for his boss. Shardul instantly moves into typical-Indian-man mode, ordering his wife around when the guests arrive.
The acting is first-rate – look out also for debutant Chum Darang as Suman’s girlfriend Rimjhim and Nitesh Pandey as Suman’s father. And there are some lovely sequences – like one in which Suman hesitantly tries to get to know Rimjhim – I wonder if this is the world’s first film to portray a blood test as swooningly romantic. These moments, like the ones between Shardul and his boyfriend, are captured by DOP Swapnil S. Sonawane with all the soft lighting and tenderness that Hindi cinema usually accords heterosexual couples. Which is wonderful.
And still, Badhaai Do doesn’t become absorbing until we are more than halfway through. Unlike Badhaai Ho, which was also written by Akshat, this film isn’t consistent with either its laughs or its emotions. Apart from Sheeba’s character, the family members on both Suman and Shardul’s side are written generically. The music – by a mix of composers including Tanishk Bagchi, Ankit Tiwari, Amit Trivedi and Khamosh Shah – doesn’t add much to the storytelling. Interestingly though, Kirti Nakhwa, who was the editor of Hunterrr and Prateek Vats, who made the terrific Eeb Allay Ooo!, have been credited as co-directors.
In an essay in Film Comment, queer Colombian author Manuel Betancourt writes: Queer cinema is not universal. Nevertheless, the question of how to reconcile the specificity of queer storytelling with the universalising effect that cinema can perform is at the heart of its project.
Badhaai Do doesn’t manage this reconciliation. But it isn’t entirely toothless. The film passionately advocates for inclusivity and acceptance. Which is always a welcome message.
You can watch the film at a theatre near you. Don’t forget to wear a mask.