Director: Raj Mehta
Writers: Rishhabh Sharrma, Anurag Singh, Sumit Batheja, Neeraj Udhawani
Cast: Varun Dhawan, Kiara Advani, Anil Kapoor, Neetu Kapoor, Prajakta Koli, Manish Paul, Tisca Chopra
Cinematographer: Jay Patel
Editor: Manish More
In an interview with me last week, Varun Dhawan described Raj Mehta as “today’s commercial director.” Which I interpret to mean that Raj is a storyteller who can take thorny subjects such as the difficulty of being unable to conceive and the complications of IVF (which he tackled in his first film Good Newwz) or the difficulty of sustaining a nourishing marriage (the subject of JugJugg Jeeyo) and marry them with Bollywood staples such as stars, big blow-out song numbers, broad comedy and high-decibel drama.
This is a tough tight-rope act because it requires juggling several tonalities at once. The narrative must include both – crass jokes about the sexual urges of a senior citizen and emotionally resonant conversations about how marriage becomes a habit rather than a partnership. JugJugg Jeeyo drunkenly swerves between these polarities and almost crashes. But with the aid of four screenplay writers, six music composers and a stellar cast, Raj somehow manages to make this contradictory film land.
JugJugg Jeeyo is the story of two couples – Bheem and Geeta who have been married for thirty-five years and their son and his wife, Kukoo and Naina who have been married for five. Kukoo and Naina met in 5th grade, after which he pursued her relentlessly. As a little kid, he screams at another boy who is speaking to Naina because he is so possessive of her (seemingly oddly like a junior Kabir Singh). He also proposes to her five times, eventually befriends her brother and finds a way to her heart. The film positions this as cute rather than creepy. But Kukoo’s grand passion frays as Naina becomes more professionally successful – Karan Johar’s 2006 infidelity drama Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna also presented a similar situation with a marriage slowly coming apart because the wife’s career soared as the husband became a bitter failure.
Kukoo and Naina are NRIs who come home from Toronto to Patiala for Kukoo’s sister Ginny’s wedding. There, Kukoo finds out that he and Naina aren’t the only ones with divorce on their minds. His father is in the throes of a serious flirtation and hoping to dump his mother as soon as the wedding is done. The story by Anurag Singh (director of Kesari and the Punjabi films Jatt and Juliet 1 and 2 and Punjab 1984) presents sparkling possibilities, which Raj isn’t fully able to mine. Mostly because the film is so afraid to take any real risks.
JugJugg Jeeyo presents a cosmetically enhanced, airbrushed version of divorce. Don’t go looking here for the raw messiness of Marriage Story or Kramer vs Kramer or even some of the surprises that Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna sprung. Sixteen years ago, Karan was brave enough to have his A-list stars, Shah Rukh Khan and Rani Mukerji, play characters who check into a hotel to have sex. By contrast, Raj makes sure to tell us that Bheem’s extramarital dalliance is sexually chaste. And any desire that Geeta might have is never addressed – in fact, through the first half, we barely have any sense of who this woman is apart from being a smiling, bejewelled Punjabi aunty.
Despite the presence of Anurag and Raj, who is also Punjabi, JugJugg Jeeyo leans heavily into the standard Bollywood Punjabi tropes, including the robust dancing, kulchas, parathas and makkhan. Bheem is loud. He cracks PJs (one is about an alcoholic pigeon) and drinks too much. So do Kukoo and his brother-in-law Gurpreet, who is dressed in designer labels from head to toe. The background music brims with dhols. And the women, resplendent in designer wedding wear, are feisty but within carefully prescribed limits.
Ginny does shots with her friends at her bachelor party but agrees to an arranged marriage because she wants to settle down. Naina’s flourishing career is mentioned often but until the end, I couldn’t figure out what her job actually was because it’s so sketchily dealt with. And Geeta remains the long-suffering wife who compromises constantly to make the marriage work. Geeta’s unstinting nurturing of her selfish, lying husband automatically gives her the moral upper hand over Meera, the woman Bheem is interested in. Meera is a working woman who tells Bheem frankly that she likes living alone so much that she never even brought home a dog. Meera might be strong and more fulfilled in her life but it’s very clear whose side this film is on.
The writing by Anurag, Sumit Batheja, Rishhabh Sharrma and Neeraj Udhwani stays largely broad and generic. Even the leads Kukoo and Naina aren’t imbued with enough specificity to become flesh and blood individuals. Raj is too invested in creating a four-quadrant entertainer so the plot stays resolutely upbeat. But in the midst of it, he stages a few key scenes which give the narrative emotional depth. Like one between Naina and Geeta. In the time-honored tradition of Karan Johar protagonists (remember the brothers reuniting in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham or the opening sequence with Dev and Maya in Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna), the two women are sitting on a bench. And Geeta bares her heart to her daughter-in-law telling her about her marriage and how in the first year itself, she wondered if her husband was the right man for her. Her recognition of the emptiness in her life’s most enduring relationship is heart-breaking.
Despite the fault lines, JugJugg Jeeyo remains watchable because of moments like this and because the actors are uniformly good. Anil Kapoor makes Bheem both vulnerable and, despite his shenanigans, likeable. Watch him in a scene in which he first tells his son that he wants a divorce. His eyes suddenly go silent as though he himself can’t believe what he is saying. With every film, Anil seems to be delivering a masterclass on how an actor can become vintage wine and age with panache. Raj can’t resist playing up Varun Dhawan’s stardom – so Kukoo proposes to Naina by writing Will You Marry Me on his washboard abs and he also gets to strut his stuff in nightclub numbers. But thankfully, we also see Kukoo’s insecurities and his selfishness. Varun toggles convincingly between these contradictory aspects.
Apart from that one key scene, Naina and Geeta don’t get the same attention from the writers that Bheem and Kukoo do. And yet, Neetu Kapoor and Kiara Advani add flesh to these characters. Neetu brings to the role an innate dignity. Her character is inconsistent but Geeta has such a wise sadness about her that I kept rooting for her to discover a life beyond Bheem. And Kiara gives Naina a steely loveliness Especially in a raging fight scene with Kukoo – this is not a woman who suffers silently. I also enjoyed Tisca Chopra’s saucy math teacher and Manish Paul, who is hilarious as the bumbling brother-in-law who inadvertently puts his designer shoe in his mouth. And keep an eye out for Prajakta Koli as Ginny, who again doesn’t get enough depth but brings sweetness to an under-written role.
JugJugg Jeeyo has the aesthetic of a blingy Punjabi wedding. This isn’t a film that will make you gasp with the beauty of its composition and frames. Though early on, Raj creates an interesting contrast between the dazzling colours of Patiala with the greys of Toronto. The vibrancy is literally leached out of Naina and Kukkoo’s partnership. But the candy colours are back as soon as we land in Punjab again.
This is inevitable because JugJugg Jeeyo is a sanitized and purposefully crowd-pleasing view of what happens between men and women. There’s enough here, including some very catchy remixed songs, that is enjoyable. I wish it had transcended to memorable. But I’m grateful to Raj for bringing back the gorgeous Nadeem-Shravan song ‘Do Dil Mil Rahe Hain’ from Pardes back into the conversation. All over again, I’m hooked.