Director: Raaj Shaandilyaa
Cast: Ayushmann Khurrana, Annu Kapoor, Manjot Singh, Vijay Raaz, Nidhi Bisht, Nushrat Bharucha
In 1977, Pramod Chakravorty made a movie titled after what the nation had nicknamed Hema Malini: Dream Girl. It was about a woman who desperately needs money, and ends up pretending to be other people. The new Dream Girl – written and directed by Raaj Shaandilyaa – does a gender-flip on this premise. This time, it's a man who needs money, and he's the one doing the impersonation. From childhood, Karam (Ayushmann Khurrana) has had the ability to mimic a woman's voice – he pretends to be a friend's mother over the phone, talking to a teacher, and he's always cast as Sita and Radha in stage plays. He protests mildly at being used this way, but as a grown-up, this talent becomes his way out of debt. He becomes a call-centre worker named Pooja, talking to men who seem to all think: If this woman's talk is so seductive, imagine how she'll look! They fall instantly in love with her. Yikes! What does this mean for the very hetero Karam?
In other words, the "Ayushmann Khurrana character has an embarrassing secret" sub-genre has a new entry. But this time around, the "secret" doesn't yield as many rewards as being a sperm donor or seeing your forty- or fifty-something mother pregnant. And this, I think, is why. After milking the premise for a few easy laughs, the film isn't able to decide how far to push it. Is it a "dirty secret"? Is Pooja satisfying the lust of men who can't seem to be able to get any? Or is she merely providing solace to a bunch of lonely hearts, which is what a speech towards the end seems to indicate? Dream Girl veers uneasily between love and the loins, and I suspect that a nudge towards the former would have given us something more emotionally rounded.
How has all this role-playing impacted Karam? Has it made him especially empathetic towards women, and the way they are objectified, even when they are "just a voice"? (In one of the film's few genuine scenes, we see the other workers at the call centre, middle-class women all, knitting sweaters and slicing vegetables while sweet-talking over the phone.) Has this non-stop pretence made Karam doubt his masculinity? I mean, even when he's not in costume, a mother taking her young son to school makes the boy fall at Karam's feet: "Aashirward le lo Sita maiya se." (And Karam still has traces of kumkum and rouge from the earlier evening's performance.) Or is he actually comfortable with these dual lives? After all, selling himself to a prospective employer, he does joke: "Maa banne ke alava main kuch bhi kar sakta hoon!" As always, Ayushmann Khurrana finds interesting ways to spice up his scenes. It would have been easy to make this a ba-dum-dish punch line. But he infuses into it a dash of comic desperation. You laugh at (and with) him. You also pity him.
These are one-joke characters, and this is a one-joke movie. Very quickly, a sense of staleness sets in.
But the material isn't up to his level. (Translation: Do not expect anything to come out of the fact that Karam plays two extremes of women, religious figures on stage and a sex/love fantasy on the phone.) I realise that a deep-dive into all this subtext would probably result in a drama, but even a disposable comedy can be made less disposable by imbuing the characters with shades of inner life. Then again, the director, who's from television, doesn't want people. He is content with flat, sitcom-style cartoons and poke-in-the-ribs music. We're meant to laugh at the "small-town" flavour (the film is set in Gokul), where signboards say "Employee Off the Week" and licence plates come with lines like "Singh is Coming". Even when things get drastic for Pooja's admirers (one of them slits his veins, another is constantly disappointing his wife), the incidents are brushed off like minor inconveniences. The cast is game (Nushrat Bharucha as the girlfriend, Vijay Raaz as a cop, Nidhi Bisht as a heartbroken man-hater, Raj Bhansali as a swaggering teen, Abhishek Banerjee as a bachelor content with his bunch of buffaloes). But after the one good gag based on the one trait that defines each of them, you keep asking: And then?
As always, Ayushmann Khurrana finds interesting ways to spice up his scenes. It would have been easy to make this a ba-dum-dish punch line. But he infuses into it a dash of comic desperation. You laugh at (and with) him.
These are one-joke characters, and this is a one-joke movie. Very quickly, a sense of staleness sets in. There is, however, one joyous stretch involving Annu Kapoor, who plays Karam's father. His Kuch Kuch Hota Hai spoof is too easy (and too much like bad TV), but at one point, the man decides to transform into an Urdu-spouting Muslim, and it's a riot. Is it stereotyping? Sure. But it's affectionate stereotyping, and the bits keep escalating the way they should in a frantic farce. (I kept wondering what Johny Lever would have done with it.) Annu Kapoor also has a solid dramatic scene where he does nothing but sleep. His son does all the talking. The affection Karam feels for his father is what we feel for him, too. The man deserved a better arc. And with this corker of a premise, we deserved a better comedy.