Director: Ajay Pannalal
Cast: Rajkummar Rao, Shruti Haasan, Ninad Kamat, Herry Tangri, Darshan Jariwala
When city slickers like us watch a new film based in a particular region we’re unfamiliar with, chances are we most certainly won’t relate to these characters, their decisions, moods and motivations. But good cinema allows you to travel to these places despite the story, learn a bit about their culture and quirks, and invest in the faces even if you disagree with – or judge the hell out of – them. For instance, I don’t know a thing about Lucknow, where Behen Hogi Teri unravels. I don’t know what a typically closeted Lucknow locality is supposed to be like. Unfortunately, by the end of this movie, I didn’t care.
I suspect there’s more to the city than a bunch of characters that are not quite sure if they’re supposed to be serious or idiotic. I’m certain most of India unwittingly populated the messy comedy-of-errors confines of Behen Hogi Teri – a nosy Gujarati family (what else does Darshan Jariwala sound like?), some boyish Haryanvi accents (the impressive Yuvraj Singh doppelganger from MS Dhoni: The Untold Story, Herry Tangri), old-school Bollywood Thakur-type gundas (Ranjeet, Gulshan Grover – obviously), and a black-sheep hero (Rajkummar Rao) and naïve heroine (Shruti Haasan) who could’ve epitomized the sweet corniness of any small-town romance if they weren’t restricted by genre.
Much like life, this film is all smooth sailing when secret adolescent love blooms between long-time sibling-like neighbours Gattu and Binny – all fine and dandy until the adults get involved. And until they realize that the 127-minute long script is perhaps a result of an sms-level one liner. Initially, it excels in dark humour. A romantic song plays over the proceedings of her grandmother’s funeral; he gazes lovingly at her tears in slow motion, dreaming hopelessly in a grieving household, while being the dewy-eyed and sanskaari male helper around the dead body.
This timely demise helps him pursue (stalk) her in a more acceptable manner, until she finally gives in. After this, all hell breaks loose – painfully slowly, over two hours of interminable and contrived miscommunication. It becomes the cinematic equivalent of awkwardly peeing in a public toilet with too many men waiting for their turn. Or maybe that’s just my personal bugbear. I digress.
The focus is so much on subverting the traditional family-first template with outlandish misconceptions and stereotypical characters that it becomes virtually impossible to engage with the leads, who’re actually the ones bang in the middle of the cluster. There even comes a point when we wonder if Rao and Haasan simply didn’t have dates for a large chunk of production. Jokes aside, perhaps that is the point in a patriarchal, close-knit neighbourhood. The overzealous elders usually take over in a noisy manner, patronizingly consigning the ‘kids’ to the background – suddenly everyone is a parent, the marriage is every adult’s responsibility, honour and reputation is of utmost essence, and the girl is everybody’s daughter and sister.
This surreal scatterbrained-ness is all true and amusing to observe in the buildup to a real wedding, but as a full-fledged Hindi film committed to sardonic social commentary and commercial entertainment it runs the risk of narratively self-destructing into a strange, unfunny quasi-drama. Especially if the makers believe that the plot should be as crowded and chaotic and tangential as the impending wedding at hand.
Much of this film’s credibility depends on the mousiness of the boy, Gattu. All the misunderstandings and absurd machinations – the core being the families’ misguided assumption that Binny is secretly dating Gattu’s loutish best friend – rely on Gattu’s inherently emasculated nature. When they arrange for her to be married to an NRI (Gautam Gulati) – this chap is named Rahul, he is the quintessential macho jerk, and this has (almost) nothing to do with me disliking the film – Gattu continues to be scared of speaking up. He is aching to explode. We’re aching to shake him up and
man human up.
There’s a film somewhere in his lack of courage, in his restlessness and flawed sense of affection, and in her frustration with his inability to conform to the notion of gallant filmy rebellion. In fact, in a drunken rant he even curses the existence of eternal romantic heroes like Shah Rukh Khan’s Rahul – a sentiment I’ve long shared with Gattu. You can’t imagine the pressure.
Rao normally excels at playing the good-hearted coward, a la Sunil (Shah Rukh, in Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa) – the shifty, under-confident and cheesy man-child coming to terms with the politics of love. But there’s too little of him here. He spends most of the time at the mercy of a long-drawn sequence of ensemble-fueled events, where it becomes difficult to track the continuity of pathetic Gattu’s emotions. I couldn’t care less about who Binny is coupled with eventually, despite Haasan’s brave but futile attempt of enacting a mid-circus meltdown.
And there could just be a chink in Rao’s acting armour, too: twice now (including Hamari Adhuri Kahaani), he has hammed the hell out of scenes where he has a bottle in his hand. It might not be entirely his fault, but it’s a little jarring when it’s obvious that Rao is otherwise such a perceptive and keenly self-aware performer. One can understand this stage though. Maybe he was just internalizing the consistency of the film he occupies.
Watch the trailer here: