Director: Raaj Shaandilyaa
Writers: Raaj Shaandilyaa, Naresh Kathooria
Cast: Ayushmann Khurrana, Ananya Pandey, Annu Kapoor, Vijay Raaz, Paresh Rawal, Manjot Singh, Abhishek Bannerjee
Duration: 133 mins
Available in: Theatres
It’s never a good sign when pre-release interviews are awash with terms like “massy,” “frontbencher,” “slapstick,” “not woke,” “leave brains at home” and “pure entertainer” (which begs the question: What is an ‘impure’ entertainer?). These are not only euphemisms for “absolute nonsense,” they’re also definitive proof of the pre-film disclaimer adding one more category – the average human – to the list of all the people it claims to not offend. They’re a polite way of saying: “Be prepared to watch your favourite social-message hero crossdress his way into your Humshakals-scarred heart”. But nobody is prepared. Nobody is warned enough. There’s no Govinda, and there’s no Razak Khan or Satish Kaushik or Kader Khan to pull off crass zingers like “flop picture ke post-interval,” “Sastey Humayun” and “Bottle se bicchda hua cap”. I’d translate them to English, but we generally believe that fat-shaming, age-shaming, slut-shaming and everything-shaming is funnier when done in Hindi.
One cannot begrudge Ayushmann Khurrana for wanting a box-office hit after tasting blood with Dream Girl (2019), a ghastly comedy that at least pretended to be Vicky Donor with a hygiene problem. (Tragically, his good work – An Action Hero (2022), Doctor G (2022) – goes largely unwatched). So Dream Girl 2 was inevitable. Director Raaj Shaandilyaa making a 133-minute-long gag reel was imminent. The threat of an inane and witless assembly of cultural appropriation puns parading as a Nineties’ David Dhawan picture was looming large. If the fruit hung any lower, it’d become a root. If you’ve decided to laugh, you will. Nothing will stop you – not even the sight of Vijay Raaz being forced to do physical comedy by makers that refuse to understand the economy of his genius. Not even the image of fine actors gleefully turning religious, psychological and sexual identities into cheap punchlines. Don’t get too serious. Where’s your sense of humour? What narrative? I’d say the 1990s called because they want their comedy back. But in this case, they called and hung up because they didn't want it back.
So this quasi-movie opens with a dance performance to a song that sounds like a devotional version of “Gangnam Style”, followed by Karam (Khurrana) mistaking a horny middle-aged woman for his girlfriend Pari (Ananya Pandey) backstage. The tone is set. There is no coming back from this. Minutes later, Pari’s angry father sets Karam some perfectly sane conditions to earn her hand in marriage: Pay off his dad Jagjit’s (Annu Kapoor) loans, boost bank account, get a job, in no particular order. So naturally, Karam and Co. decide on a get-rich-quick hustle that any self-respecting character in a spiritual sequel named Dream Girl 2 would: Become a bar girl. The idea is so outlandish that it’s almost good. The first film had Khurrana put on a sultry voice for a phone-sex hotline; this one physically manifests that woman, Pooja, through a bunch of ‘item songs’. Karam’s best friend, Smiley (Manjot Singh), and Jagjit are thrilled to see Karam seduce the bar owner (Raaz). The con is working. So far, so loony. But then begins the real circus of horrors.
Smiley wants to marry Sakina, the daughter of a rich Muslim patriarch (Paresh Rawal) who is ready to pay a fortune to anyone who can ‘cure’ the depression of his son, Shah Rukh (Abhishek Banerjee). For reasons best left unexplored, Smiley convinces Karam to turn his Pooja into a sexy psychiatrist for sullen Shah Rukh. Before we know it, a man disguised as a woman literally gets married to a man pretending to like women. They live together. Everything escalates so quickly that it’s best to act like nothing’s wrong.
There is an assortment of other live-action cartoon characters: Sakina’s adopted brother (Rajpal Yadav); a grandfather (Asrani) who pops it after seeing Pooja urinating from a balcony; a thrice-married aunt (Seema Pahwa) who falls for Karam and approaches a lovelorn Jagjit to ask for his son’s hand; a random bank employee (Ranjan Raj) who falls for Pooja; and of course, a naive Pari who sounds like Mathura is in South Mumbai while wondering why Karam is being so freaky. At one point, in a totally unnecessary ode to Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995), a home pregnancy test strip flies off a balcony and lands in someone’s lap. The next thing we know, the strict patriarch is throwing a party because he thinks his daughter-in-law Pooja is expecting. The real pregnancy is all but forgotten in pursuit of the not-so-grand reveal. Film-making is all but forgotten in pursuit of pre-internet-era skits.
There’s no end to the mistaken-identity jokes, the “Suniel Shetty or Shilpa Shetty?” gender puns, the cringey Khurrana monologues (“love is love, man” he tells a gay character), and a general disdain for commercial storytelling. This is by far Khurrana’s most insincere performance, and I will not give him credit for cross-dressing with the sort of swag that could put half the actresses out of work. (That disorienting gong still belongs to Aamir Khan in the 1995 film Baazi). I can imagine Dream Girl 2 being a hoot to narrate over a plate of peanuts and a peg of rum in a dive bar, coupled with the declaration that those who don’t enjoy it are too snooty to get single-screen humour. But even by that yardstick, a lot of it feels like rejected material from the director’s writing gigs for The Kapil Sharma Show and Comedy Circus. Given that Wikipedia credits Shaandilyaa with a 2013 Limca Book record of 625 such scripts, that’s a lot of rejected material. Without a laughter track, mind you.
In the end – and it’s sad that this has to be spelt out in 2023 – it’s hard to not notice that the actors and film-makers are actually mocking the ‘types’ they play. They’re punching down on people in the name of tier-three fun. There’s a reason the disclaimer at the start of Dream Girl 2 is so long. The film is nothing if not for its politically incorrect pride. It’s also hard not to notice that, unlike with nostalgia-grabbing historicals like Gadar 2, most audiences laugh with – and not at – nostalgia-grabbing comedies. Some of the laughter is defiant, because people are tired of being on guard about what they think and say in this age of ultra-sensitive posturing. Call it fun and games, but movies like Dream Girl 2 perpetuate all the subconscious biases and slurs that shows like Made In Heaven then over-reach to dispel. One provokes, the next educates, and so on. Nobody wins, and all we’re left with is an endlessly counter-active cycle of dishonest entertainment. Lest we end on a bleak note, imagine this tug-of-war of sensibilities in terms of a popular Bollywood comedy: One of them is shameless Manu (Shah Rukh Khan), the other is noble Bablu (Shah Rukh Khan), and the viewer is the confused mother (Farida Jalal) torn between the two. The title of that film, Duplicate (1998), is a fitting nod to these times.