Shiddat, On Disney+ Hotstar, Is A Tone-deaf Bollywood Ode to Undying Love
Directed by: Kunal Deshmukh
Writer: Shridhar Raghavan, Dheeraj Rattan, Pooja Ladha Surti
Cast: Sunny Kaushal, Radhika Madan, Mohit Raina, Diana Penty
Cinematography: Amalendu Chaudhary
Edited by: Sreekar Prasad
If I had a penny for every nonsensical new-age iteration of Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge in which millennial heroes and heroines name-drop DDLJ and then proceed to become unwitting cautionary tales about how '90s Bollywood romances have deluded generations of Indian lovers and filmmakers, I'd be rich enough to float an entire university of cultural studies where every single module would be dedicated to the dangers of passing off deranged/toxic/psychopathic obsession as eternal love. Shiddat would headline the initiation session. Shiddat would be screened every morning.
Kunal Deshmukh's latest somehow uses three solid actors – Sunny Kaushal, Radhika Madan and Mohit Raina – to suggest that there is nothing quite as aspirational as a mentally unstable male blinded by love. In most other countries, a film like this would be a Cape Fear-style thriller in which a young woman is haunted by the remnants of a one-night stand. But this is commercial Hindi cinema. So naturally, it's a love story about how far a big-hearted man is willing to go to marry the girl of his dreams. Needless to mention, he remains undiagnosed.
Since it's 2021, the writers 'upgrade' the Punjab-to-London template with themes of illegal immigration in Europe and what not – though that's the least illegal thing about the film. Hero Jaggi (Kaushal) is introduced as a wedding crasher who gets irrationally inspired by the groom Gautam's (Raina) speech: something about destiny and crossing seven seas. (The wedding is more or less a metaphor for a cinema hall playing DDLJ). A few years later, Jaggi, a Punjab hockey player, sees swimmer Kartika (Madan) at a sports camp – he and his friends leer at the female swimmers, he clicks a photograph of hers and posts it on social media without her consent, she is impressed by his daring, she responds by entering the male locker room and taking photos of naked and red-faced men (gender equality), is disarmed by Jaggi's wet and muscular body, and soon dives into bed with him because he's just so persistent. When he discovers that she is going to get married in London, she jokingly remarks that she will stop the wedding if he reaches her in time. She doesn't know he's a nut, because unfortunately even the filmmakers don't know it. Most of the film occurs three months later, where Jaggi is detained by the French authorities while being smuggled into England. The Indian diplomat in charge of him is, you guessed it (why did you?), Gautam. Paris and coastal Calais are passed off as the same city because Jaggi will consider swimming the English Channel to reach Kartika, who actually doesn't mind getting married off to another guy. I'd go as far as to say she's forgotten him.
Firstly, we need to speak about the national sports camp – the background of their coupling. I'm not saying things need to be authentic, but they don't need to be daft either. Jaggi freely walks in and out of the pool area during the girls' training sessions, flirts with her, coaches her ("Be Jaws, not Nemo"). There are no rules. They party every night, get drunk, dance and turn up to competition the next day without any side-effects. Kartika even wins her freestyle event after what I presume was a drunken all-night romp with Jaggi. Forget Chak De! India, I'm worried the next generation of athletes will train to find their soulmate at the nearest sports camp. The camp could well have been the Kuch Kuch Hota Hai college, but the makers seem to have borrowed from the perception that every Olympic Village is the Ground Zero of sexual activity. This is also the second time Sunny Kaushal has played a hockey player (after Gold) and the second time he's played a character named Jaggi (after Bhangra Paa Le), but Shiddat is so deep in the old-school Emraan Hashmi zone that Jaggi could have been a singer and it'd have made zero difference.
We also need to speak about why Kartika is so easily swayed by Jaggi's certifiable madness. There's not a lot of chemistry between the two actors at the camp, so it feels less than certain that this is the trigger of Jaggi's warped journey to England. When he calls her from France, her disbelief turns into fear which then turns into love. He's a glorified stalker, and despite the help he gets from a now-cynical Gautam, the film allows him to remain a nutcase who imagines that the gestures of love are greater than love itself. Swimming the English Channel, clinging onto an airplane wheel, escaping detention facilities and deportation, perishing, Kartika declaring that she feels like a '90s heroine – the makers pull out all the My Name Is Khan stops to win our sympathy for Jaggi. But it's hard to invest in a setup where nobody is questioning his motives or putting him in therapy. On the contrary, everyone is impressed. Envious even.
Adult Gautam's story is far more compelling, but it's merely an afterthought in a film that juxtaposes stormy love against stable companionship. In the end, not even a lilting-ballad soundtrack can save Shiddat from being a fetisization of alpha-male affection. I keep wondering why Hindi cinema can't do classic larger-than-life love stories anymore – and why everything feels so dispensable. But if Shiddat is the result of old wine in a new bottle, I'd rather this genre be euthanized and buried at sea. But then I'd be worried that the sequel would feature another Jaggi deep-sea diving to recover the body and resuscitate it in the name of heritage preservation.