Director: Raj Singh Chaudhary
Writers: Raj Singh Chaudhary, Kartik Chaudhry, Nishank Verma
Cast: Kirti Kulhari, Nivedita Bhattacharya, Rajan Modi, Medha Shankar, Shenpenn Khymsar, Ajay Jayanthi
Streaming on: Disney+ Hotstar
The “social-message drama” is a smug and inherently Indian cousin of the social-commentary drama. The latter is an actual storytelling genre. But the former is erroneously considered one. Instead of diagnosing a culture and trusting the audience to identify the ailment, the film-makers insist on delivering the verdict, the prescription as well as the medicine themselves. The whole film then exists in service of its message – which is conveyed in bold and blindingly bright letters, in the self-righteous tone of a teacher, a parent, a sage and an orator at once. Some might say this is noble, but I personally think it reeks of intellectual arrogance. A movie’s job is to engage, not to turn entertainment into a multimedia classroom. Shaadisthan, directed by Raj Singh Chaudhary, is an example of why education should best be left to moral science textbooks.
The film itself is merely ornamental, almost incidental. Everything about it screams a sermon, yes, but a sermon on how to be unsubtle, literal and semi-offensive all at once. Its tradition-versus-modernism template is a world of lazy binaries and caricatures. In the red corner is the ‘new age,’ represented by an Indian rock band on their merry way from Mumbai to a wedding gig in Ajmer. Their vehicle is a psychedelic hippie van, their names ooze bohemian rhapsody (Sasha, Imaad, Freddie, Jigme), they smoke blunts and drink beer for breakfast, and they are introduced with an anthem that makes them look like Sadda Haq and Janardhan Jakhar fanatics. Also, they cuss a lot. In the black corner are the old-schoolers, represented by a society-conscious middle-class couple (the man is a spitting image of singer Abhijeet Bhattacharya) who must travel with the rockers to the wedding after missing their flight. This family is straight out of a 90s Barjayta movie, carrying a tiffin of parathas, disgruntled with the smoke and booze in the van, judging their music and hair, and disappointed with their own sullen teen daughter, who is insta-quote suicidal because they’re planning to get her engaged on her 18th birthday. This girl is not just sad but also consistently critiquing her own sadness: What’s the point of educating a girl-child if this was their plan? Why are my parents so backward? Do I have no agency of my own?
Then there are the overwrought dualities. The destination is Rajasthan, a state where the past and the present jostle for space in broad daylight. One of their stopovers is in Udaipur, to meet a friend (a reminder of why Kay Kay Menon needs to do more roles in better movies) who spells out the old-weds-new universe by admitting he is a blue-blooded Royal who now runs a hotel. They have tea laced with opium at his palace – a random device inserted solely so that a stoned blackout can result in the female musician Sasha (Kirti Kulhari) and the sari-clad wife (Nivedita Bhattacharya) cooking side by side at a roadside dhaba to satisfy their midnight cravings. The scene exists so that Sasha can say she’s cooking because she’s hungry while her sanskari counterpart is cooking because she’s conditioned to. The intent is there, the irony is heavy, but the moment sounds like little more than a feisty Masterchef India face-off.
Their next long lecture happens at the wedding, where the artist urges the housewife to break free of societal pressure, live freely and stop seeking permission from her husband. This isn’t hinted at, it’s an actual conversation. The sober-emoji wife remarks that Sasha’s only fault is that she feels the need to ‘voice’ her feminism and her angst. In short: Why tell when you can simply show? If only films like these practiced what they preached. Actually, scratch that. If only films like Shaadisthan stopped preaching altogether, perhaps we all wouldn’t feel like a bunch of unruly kids trapped in a confession booth. And maybe the commentary wouldn’t sound like it’s being done in Sanjay Manjrekar’s voice.