Director: Jai Basantu Singh
Writer: Raaj Shaandilyaa
Cast: Nushrratt Bharuccha, Anud Singh Dhaka, Vijay Raaz, Brijendra Kala, Tinnu
Cinematographer: Chirantan Das
Janhit Mein Jaari exists at the awkward intersection of the Hindi social-message drama and the Bollywood sex comedy. The result is the cinematic equivalent of a teenage boy who keeps cracking jokes to hide his discomfort while buying a condom. Which is an irony, because Janhit Mein Jaari – like the Aparshakti Khurana-starring Helmet last year – is about a prude-to-proud condom seller in small-town India. The 'helmet' is a 'little umbrella,' the salesman is a saleswoman, and Kanpur here is the chaste center of Jain culture, Chanderi. Every part of this genre is interchangeable. The premise revolves around a spunky (oh, that adjective again) MA graduate (Nushrratt Bharuccha) who lands a job at a condom company, makes good money, falls in love and marries into an ultra-traditional family because what's the point if a regressive setting isn't transformed by the powers of a progressive protagonist?
But the problem isn't so much the didactic tone as the simplistic treatment. Watching the film felt like I was watching a 147-minute-long Comedy Circus episode, replete with Kapil-Sharma-esque one-liners, background sound cues, extensive gags and quirky caricatures. (My suspicions were confirmed when Wikipedia revealed that the screenwriter, Raaj Shaandilya, did in fact make his name as a prolific Comedy Circus lead writer for seven years). The stray bits of the story are strewn across the comic framework, like those tacky anti-smoking or anti-drinking disclaimers – or in this case, anti-abortion and protection disclaimers – imprinted at the bottom of most Indian screens. I did chuckle from time to time, but the film does very little to justify the medium of storytelling.
It's not abnormal to use comedy as a door to the basement of hard truths. But evidently, Janhit Mein Jaari does the reverse: Everything – including the timeworn narrative – is an excuse to present a glorified standup set about condoms and its cultural vignettes. For instance, the central character's name is Manokamna (translation: desire of the heart) because she is ambitious and follows her heart. Her romantic interest is named Ranjan, purely so that the term "Mano-Ranjan" eventually comes into play. She is impressed by him the moment she sees him address a large man sitting in a ladies' seat by a feminine name to prove a point. The Tinnu Anand character – the oldest of Ranjan's household – is blind, but only to enable a juvenile gag where the old man mistakes a condom packet as a packet of Eno powder in the middle of the night. (The scene, involving one of the horny grandsons making the faux pas, plays out like a skit entirely unconnected to the film). When Mano asks a nosy sister-in-law if she's traveled anywhere ("tum ghumne nahi gayi ho?"), pat comes the one-liner: "hum do baar ghume gaye hai – chakkar aaye dono bacho ke wakht". Another four minutes are dedicated to an ancient but sexually active old man buying condoms from a brash chemist who keeps making yamraaj-and-top-floor jokes. You get the gist. Funny, but only if Archana Puran Singh or Navjot Singh Sidhu were guffawing opposite them.
At least the Govinda-David Dhawan movies of the '90s aspired to stay silly without the burden of social relevance. This one is so inclined towards humour that the serious core – the righteous dialogue, the patriarch-of-joint-family conflicts, the montages of villagers getting enlightened about sex, the tonal transitions, the sad songs – ends up being the silly and disposable part. I like that this is a rare female-led social dramedy, as well as the role-reversal in the marriage: Ranjan is the meek and jobless house-husband, torn between his domineering father and his agency-forward wife (he even compares married men to underwear at one point), while Mano is the career-oriented and morally grounded partner. But that's where the novelty ends.
There is a general naivety about the film-making: no understanding of how humans feel or react, and no sense of reform even though the theme is "bold". Mano makes a move on Ranjan early on, asking him to book a hotel room for a few hours; he shies away with a monologue (or mano-logue) on noble middle-class men, and she says he's passed her "test". This is promptly followed by their wedding. Which is to say: A condom might be the star, but the humans better be sanskaari. At times, a scene goes from sad to happy with a simple switch of the background score. A doctor yells at a man getting her pregnant despite her womb problems, and a mere seconds later, the same doctor informs the family that she is saved and everyone breaks into Barjatya-film smiles. What did I miss?
It's not just the continuity and lack of rhythm. Not once is the writing smooth enough to justify the countless changes of heart and conscience in the film. Mano convinces her judgy mother about her job with little more than a line or two. It takes an illegal abortion, an all-male panchayat and a death – where she looks like a city journalist shocked by a rural setting – for Mano to grow a conscience overnight, after which she uses Google to quote statistics to everyone in her general vicinity. An entire fake-divorce arc plays out for no reason whatsoever, except to make the film long enough to fit in a few more gags. Mano clearly plays to a type, and we never get a sense of what makes her tick, or why she is so different from the rest of the women in her locality. Ditto for most other characters, who behave like loud stand-ins on a stage rather than everyday people.
The performances, too, are able in comedy but lack dramatic timing. Nushrratt Bharuccha does the typical beer-swigging, men-humbling act with spirit, but she is visibly limited to two expressions because of the script. The same can be said for Anud Singh Dhaka, whose resemblance to the late Sushant Singh Rajput is unnerving, especially in the way he speaks and smiles. Vijay Raaz is reduced to his patented exasperated-boss reactions, as the politician father whose stone-age sensibilities are challenged by a young woman. But one senses he's angry only because the actor is funny to see in these moods, not because the man has ego issues. Paritosh Tripathi is a hoot as Mano's best friend who's secretly in love with her, though I'm just glad we were spared a school-level "KLPD" pun during his time on screen.
What amused me most, however, was the film's own social anxiety. Every time a scene gets too heavy or preachy, there's always a punchline – either physical or otherwise – waiting to diffuse the tension, because Indians (including film-makers) aren't quite known to handle the heat without breaking the ice. Janhit Mein Jaari is all about the ice. The heat can go take a hike…said mankind as Global Warming turned the planet into a giant oven in 2043. I apologize. I'm a bit punch(line)-drunk, but who can blame me?