Director: Divyang Thakkar
Writer: Divyang Thakkar
Cast: Ranveer Singh, Shalini Pandey, Boman Irani, Ratna Pathak Shah
Cinematographer: Siddharth Diwan
Editor: Namrata Rao
It was only a matter of time before the Bollywood-social-dramedy bandwagon rolled into Gujarat. Heaven knows North India needs a break. Unfortunately, like most movies emerging from the modern Gujarati film industry, Jayeshbhai Jordaar is gratingly basic. It takes a spoofy Amar-Chitra-Katha-esque approach towards female foeticide and rural patriarchy – like that cheery teacher who insists on being clownish and illustrative to engage the students. I'm all for seeing the popcorn side of dark issues. Yet, Jayeshbhai Jordaar feels like more of a studio algorithm. If done well, you get a mid-2000s Rajkumar Hirani entertainer, where slapstick and parody and melodrama co-exist in sappy harmony. Instead, this film's treatment belongs to the era of Laaga Chunari Mein Daag, Dil Bole Hadippa! and Aaja Nachle. The producers, Yash Raj Films (YRF), were incidentally one of the early movers in the rebirth of this genre, with the lovely Dum Laga Ke Haisha. The landscape has now evolved to Badhaai Do, and Jayeshbhai Jordaar gives strong back-to-the-drawing-board vibes. We've moved on, but the film hasn't.
The first act is promising. I like that the story is well underway by the time the film begins. It feels like a pre-existing world, where events have already happened, plots have already been hatched; viewers are invited to climb onto a moving train. The town is Pravingarh. Jayesh (Ranveer Singh) is a father of a 9-year-old girl (Jia Vaidya), and his young wife Mudra (Shalini Pandey) is pregnant again after six "miscarriages". His parents – the scary Sarpanch (Boman Irani) and his long-suffering wife Yashoda (Ratna Pathak Shah) – pray for it to be a boy. (The doctor secretly conveys to Jayesh that it won't be; this has clearly happened before). Back home, it shows that Jayesh and Mudra have been together for nearly a decade. For instance, he pretends to beat her up in the bedroom to appease the father; they have a blast play-acting behind closed doors. It's a routine. At night, he secretly teaches her how to drive a car.
Within minutes, we see the couple and their daughter on the run. Jayesh expected this day to come, so he's already looked up a destination and made a map; this is why Mudra learned to drive. I also like that the cellphone plays a major role in conveying why Jayesh is different from his parents and elders. Why does he find their behaviour problematic, despite having grown up around them? He isn't woke or broad-minded because he's the protagonist of a film. Education aside, his daughter has exposed him to the world of Google and Youtube (Alexa is 'Sarla' here), which seem to have expanded his mental horizons beyond their regressive environment. All of this is subtext, not text. So when his father resolves an eve-teasing issue by banning girls from using soap because of the effect it has on men, Jayesh's stunned face is understandable. Most films put this down to generational conflict, but this one gets that knowing better is a process, not a trait. His empathy for his wife has not happened overnight either; it's taken years, which the film suggests we imagine.
It's also nice that Jayesh is a rare beta male in Hindi cinema. In films like this, we keep waiting for the suppressed Indian hero to become an action hero and go bonkers to protect his family. The explosion is always around the corner. The smartalec daughter, at one point, encourages him to do exactly this. This masculinity is what the "Jordaar" in the title is a riff on. But at no point does Jayesh stop being scared of his domineering father. At no point does he seem in total control. Every time they get caught, it's either luck or buffonery that gets them off the hook. When push comes to shove, the maximum he does is threaten to castrate himself. Even though Ranveer Singh flings himself into the beti-bachao waters he had dipped his testosterone-laden toes in with Simmba, he does well to reign in the macho. He is not designed as a male saviour. He's a bit like the younger version of Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi's Suri – clumsy, awkward, emotionally diminished, and struggling to be the man society expects him to be.
But it's the simplistic writing that undermines Singh's performance, turning Jayesh into more of a mousey caricature than a good person. The many monologues, in particular, are terribly corny – composed for effect, not feeling. One is even centered on the concept of "pappi" (kiss), which is the film's sanitized way of saying that he yearns for lovemaking and not breeding. A scene where Jayesh discovers covert group-therapy sessions of the town's women on a terrace ends with him at the center of a teary group hug. These are carefully constructed bullet points, not organic moments. When the family of three is on the run, it also feels like the script is ticking through a checklist: a Punjabi dhaba, a drug-laced escape, a black cat, a fake miscarriage. The chase gets repetitive very fast, and the climactic chaos at a hospital – despite featuring the film's best satirical device: Haryanvi pehelwans who respect women because there are none left in their village – looks like the end of a children's film. It's like the lavish wish-fulfillment of old-school YRF love stories have now been inherited by their social message dramas; the scale, and packaging, is too evident. As a result, the tone often makes it seem like the movie is talking down to the audience under the guise of accessibility and entertainment.
I'm also not sure of the message light-hearted movies about heavy issues give when the villains – in this case, murderous misogynists – are capable of being cured by a speech or three. I get that Boman Irani specializes in playing such baddies – who aren't evil as much as stubborn products of a traditional system – but the subject of Jayeshbhai Jordaar cannot afford any kind of redemption arc or magical transformation. There's a dissonance between his actions and his reckoning: like a real-life human stuck in a comic. Some may call the film's Gandhi-esque stance feel-good and necessary in this age of intolerance, but it comes at the cost of the integrity of the cause. It's a classic sign of films that try too hard to be liked and enjoyed – they're even willing to ridicule themselves to get an extra smile or two. A smile that widens when the end credits open with the names of the actresses, until you realize the film itself is titled after a man.