Director: Aanand L. Rai
Writers: Himanshu Sharma, Kanika Dhillon
Cast: Akshay Kumar, Bhumi Pednekar, Sadia Khateeb, Deepika Khanna, Sahejmeen Kaur, Smrithi Srikanth
I remember watching Shallow Hal (2001) as a teenager and, for the first time, realizing that some movies use shallow characters as a smokescreen to hide their own shallowness. Here was a crude fat-joke-centric comedy – about a hypnotized man who falls for a 300-pound woman because he sees her as a svelte lady – parading as a fable about "inner beauty". After watching Raksha Bandhan, 21 years later, I look back with nothing but nostalgia at the notorious Jack Black starrer. I've seen my fair share of tone-deaf social dramas over the years, but Raksha Bandhan takes the (eggless) cake. It's the sort of self-contradictory movie that bats for progressiveness even within the constraints of regressive systems, only to become progressively regressive by the minute. If you think that's a tongue-twister, I apologize. I'm a little shaken. Every time I reached for hair to pull out, my receding hairline thwarted my efforts.
Once the film opens with a message thanking Sooraj Barjatya for "keeping alive Indian traditions and family values in Hindi cinema," Akshay Kumar appears as a boisterous Chandni Chowk resident named Kedarnath. The intent is to show this man as a product of his patriarchal environment. So he runs a gol gappa stall that guarantees a male child to pregnant women who eat there. He has taken a vow to marry his childhood sweetheart, Sapna (Bhumi Pednekar), only after he marries his four sisters into decent homes. His life's goal is to earn enough money to pay for their dowry. When an activist arrives to deliver anti-dowry speeches, Kedarnath berates her for denying Indian families the dignity and pride of marrying their daughters in the 'right' manner. When some boys whistle at his sisters, he beats them up before declaring (with a mic) that men who 'eve-tease' girls should be obligated to marry them.
The problem with Raksha Bandhan is that it's impossible to tell the film from its narrow-minded setting. The small-town energy of an average Aanand L. Rai scene is so strong that it's hard to tell if the characters are being condemned for their flaws or celebrated for their quirks. The activity and noise in a frame feel like red herrings that distract from its problematic themes. For instance, Raksha Bandhan unironically uses every woman in the story as a visual prop for the man's eventual enlightenment. One of the sisters is obese only so that Kedarnath can fat-shame her and then regret his own behaviour in the end. Another is dark-skinned so that he can smother her face with fairness cream; another is tomboyish so that he can call her Sunny Deol and make her wear a sari. He is fondest of the light-skinned sister; the others are shown fighting like zoo animals over a samosa.
Kedarnath knows no better, of course; it's his conditioning. But Kumar plays these scenes for blatant comedy – the sort that Govinda made a career of in the politically-incorrect Nineties. A potential groom meet featuring twin brothers and a stammering problem will go down as the most cringeworthy scene of the year. What's more, the film itself begins to reflect this tone, deriving entertainment out of Kedarnath's insults and Kumar's frantic performance. It merely uses an offensive character as an excuse to be funny.
The other problem is that because it's a Bollywood superstar playing Kedarnath, even his chauvinism is designed to be noble. The film never makes it clear that we are supposed to dislike him; it presents his character as someone endearing, not toxic. At one point, it's revealed that he is adopted and yet he is sacrificing everything for the sisters. At another point, he sells one of his kidneys (!) to pay for the dowry. The film is a narrative and textural misfire on so many levels that it even tries to pass off his quest as brotherly love when, in fact, it's his desperation to marry Sapna that drives him. It doesn't help that Kedarnath shares more romantic chemistry with the gol gappas he sells than the woman he loves, who in turn spends most of her time either yelling or weeping. We know that a tragedy will transform our flawed hero. But the change arrives so late and so reluctantly that it feels like forced homework to compensate for a day of pranks. You can almost hear the film shrug: "Do I really have to?"
The epilogue is so morally simplistic that the absurd fetisization of mental health in Atrangi Re (2021), the director's previous film, feels like an honourable crime in comparison. Raksha Bandhan is, at its core, a nasty swipe at wokeness parading as a fable of family values. And there is no redemption for that, just like there is no redemption for a character that might have mocked my receding hairline as a "half-moon" despite sporting a glaringly fake moustache himself.