Director: Sameer Vidwans
Writer: Karan Shrikant Sharma
Cast: Kartik Aaryan, Kiara Advani, Gajaraj Rao, Supriya Pathak Kapur
Gujju patakas, dandiya scenes, a subtle admission that no one can beat Falguni Pathak when it comes to garba soundtracks, and public service announcements about how no means no — there’s a lot going on in Satyaprem ki Katha. It seems like director Sameer Vidwans and writer Karan Shrikant Sharma want to use the Bollywood star vehicle to teach audiences how to be good allies to survivors of sexual abuse. While making stupid jokes and relying on tired clichés, their film wants to nudge people towards being more open-minded. It hopes to earn brownie points for having packaged its moral lectures in Kartik Aaryan’s toothy grins and plunging-V necklines. All this sounds well-intentioned enough until you actually watch this 146-minute long masterclass in mansplaining.
Satyaprem, aka Sattu (Aaryan), is the lone bachelor of his middle-class Ahmedabad neighbourhood. After failing thrice at becoming a lawyer, he’s now the stay-at-home son, doing all the household work along with his father (Gajraj Rao). His mother (Supriya Pathak Kapur) — her name is Diwali. Diwali’s sister’s name is Christmas. Yes, this is what passes for humour in the film — and sister Sejal (Shikha Talsania) are the family’s breadwinners. Diwali teaches garba dancing while Sejal is a zumba instructor. In this household, the women are dominant and the men are unpaid labour, all of which is milked for humour and seems to be intended to create sympathy for Sattu. Conventionally, a young man who can’t get a job and is therefore ‘reduced’ to doing domestic work would at best be considered an underdog, but perhaps in deference to the country’s deteriorating labour markets and the surging unemployment rate, Sattu is a bona fide hero waiting for his moment to shine. (Also, he doesn’t seem to be very good at housework.)
Sattu’s moment — or series of moments — come because of Katha (Kiara Advani). Contained in Katha are all the clichés about Gujaratis that Sharma could pack into one person: She’s the garba-singer daughter of Ahmedabad’s most beloved farsan seller. When Sattu sees Katha at a garba, he falls in love with her but Katha has a rich boyfriend, so Sattu doesn’t stand a chance. A year later, Sattu learns Katha is single and so, encouraged by his father, Sattu sneaks into Katha’s house to make friends with her. She literally falls into his arms — not because it’s love at first sight, but because she’s slashed her wrist and has wilted from the loss of blood.
After Sattu saves Katha’s life, her father points out to her that she’s so useless, she couldn’t even pull off a suicide correctly. Then he suggests Katha and Sattu (who is entirely unperturbed by the minor detail of having witnessed an almost-death) get married. When Katha refuses, her father tells her that if she says no, he’ll slash his own wrist. In fact, he’s keeping a blade in his pocket, just so that it’s handy. Not that any of this suicide talk is making the film more empathetic. Soon after Katha’s attempted suicide, we get a swoony ballad whose lyrics casually repeat the phrase “mar jaoonga” and show death as a romantic pinnacle. (Trigger? What trigger?) A stone-faced Katha agrees to the marriage. Laxmi Vilas Palace shifts from Vadodara to Ahmedabad so that the nuptials can be carried out against its baroque grandeur.
Back in his modest home in Ahmedabad — which looks like it could be the set from a Hindi soap opera — a delighted Sattu informs his new bride on their wedding night that he’s a virgin. “It will be my gift for my wife,” he says of his sexual inexperience. Meanwhile, the wife in question is crying herself to sleep and trying to find ways to avoid spending nights with Sattu. Elsewhere, Diwali is pretending for Katha’s benefit that she’s a good homemaker and doing all the household chores that were earlier assigned to Sattu and his father. Because what could be more shame-inducing than a home in which traditional gender roles are reversed and the men support women?
Yet, Satyaprem Ki Katha’s fatal flaw isn’t in its tone-deaf and awkward moments, but in the lack of chemistry between Sattu and Katha. A love story — particularly one that will unfold against a slowly-revealed backdrop of trauma — has to sweep both those in the story as well as those watching, off their feet. However, despite song sequences in picturesque locations, neither Advani nor Aaryan are convincing when a romance begins to blossom between the two. The script’s decision to treat foreplay as a trigger for traumatic memories does little to help Satyaprem Ki Katha live up to its claims of being a love story. It’s for armchair shrinks to hypothesise about the subtext shimmering under the film’s decision to show sex and desire as something that destroys people, rather than being restorative (or even fun).
Surviving suicide is only the tip of the iceberg of trauma in Satyaprem ki Katha. To the film’s credit, it steers clear of many of the usual stereotypes surrounding sexual abuse and repeatedly reminds the audience that there is no shame in being a survivor. The film ends with a slide of text about rape statistics in India, with a pointed reminder that most often, the rapists are people victims or survivors know intimately well. The text expressly mentions many husbands are guilty of rape. Considering our courts’ unwillingness to accept marital rape as a reality, Vidwans and Sharma’s clear-sighted statement is applause-worthy.
While it’s hard for the survivor in Satyaprem ki Katha to find acceptance and understanding from some, it’s given freely and generously by others, which is the kind of fiction you’d want to see in commercial cinema. Kapur’s Diwali has one of the film’s most memorable and poignant lines when she gently tells her son, “Agar kisika dard samajh nahin sakte, toh badhao mat (If you can’t understand someone’s pain, then don’t make it worse for them).” There’s a shot towards the end of the film when Sattu and Katha are standing at a balcony, with court papers in their hands. Katha takes a deep breath and signs the papers, and the two families look on, beaming with pride and love. It’s the kind of scene you expect when two people are getting married, but here, we see the couple commit to each other using a very different set of legal papers.
The moment would have been more satisfying if it wasn’t preceded by a monologue in which Katha expresses teary gratitude for her husband taking decisions on her behalf and thus showing her the light. She’s not strong enough to know or do the right thing on her own, she admits to Sattu. It’s as though the filmmaker is telling us that since Katha is self-aware and going along with it, who are we to complain about Sattu constantly instructing Katha on what to do and how to feel. Post-interval, Satyaprem Ki Katha feels like one public service announcement after another — all but one delivered by Sattu — interspersed with comedy whose simplistic frothiness feels jarring next to the film’s more serious issues.
There’s a scene in which Sattu’s father talks to Katha while she’s making tea and says, “Tu gas pe laga de, mera Sattu ubaal dega (You put it on the gas, my Sattu will bring it to boil).” He’s trying to nudge Katha into letting Sattu have sex with her — we’ll leave you to work out the chai/sex metaphor — but bringing things to a boil is precisely what Sattu does in the film’s second half, one mansplaining scene at a time. Just in case that’s not heroism enough for you, there’s also a haphazard fight thrown in for good measure which begins with Aaryan almost outrunning a BMW and then bludgeoning the bejesus out of a man accused of rape.
Twice in the film, Sattu tells Katha that she’s the one who needs to be her own hero and that he’s happy to be the “supporting hero” in her story, but the film isn’t interested in that sort of equity. Not only does Katha get significantly less screen time than Sattu, there’s little effort to give Katha any interiority. Additionally, Advani’s performance fails to add complexity and depth to an underwritten role. For most of the film, Katha acts and reacts in ways that are less about her own character development and more about giving Sattu a chance to show off the qualities that were hidden behind the facade of failure. Aaryan makes the most of his author-backed role, bringing Sattu to life with smooth mediocrity. While Sattu grows to become a larger-than-logic hero in the course of Satyaprem Ki Katha, Katha is less of a person and more a collection of symptoms and behaviour that exist to enable Sattu’s ascent to awesomeness. Without her trauma, he can’t prove to the world that he’s a real man and worthy of respect.
Net result: By the end of Satyaprem Ki Katha, the film feels more like an exercise in virtue-signalling, and less like a labour of love.