Directors: Amit Joshi and Aradhana Sah
Writers: Amit Joshi and Aradhana Sah
Cast: Shahid Kapoor, Kriti Sanon, Dharmendra, Dimple Kapadia, Rakesh Bedi, Anubha Fatehpuria, Rajesh Kumar and Raashul Tandon
Run-time: 143 minutes
Available in: Theatres
If you’ve watched the trailer of Amit Joshi and Aradhana Sah’s Teri Baaton Mein Aisa Uljha Jiya (TBMAUJ, 2024), you’ve essentially watched the first half of the film. Aryan Agnihotri (Shahid Kapoor) — who, we are told, is a brilliant robotics engineer — finds himself catching feelings for a robot named Sifra (Super Intelligent Female Robot Automation). His aunt is Urmila (Dimple Kapadia), the head of E-Robotics, whose company took 13 years of trial and error to create Sifra (Kriti Sanon). We’re told robots like Sifra are designed for a future in which they will provide care and company to lonely, vulnerable people. Sifra can speak every language, cook every cuisine, has knowledge about everything in the world, and is supposed to look and behave as much like human beings as robotly possible.
Urmila invites Aryan to visit her in America under the pretext of work, but it’s actually a test for both Aryan and Sifra. We learn later that Urmila had programmed Sifra to reflect Aryan’s likes and dislikes, organise his cupboard, make him coffee, and also to… fall in love with him? After a magical day during which Aryan teaches Sifra Hindi slang and smoking, and a one-night stand that leaves Aryan wondering “Tum free nahin lag rahi thi (You didn’t seem free)”, the truth comes out.
Aryan’s techie male ego is hurt that Urmila (and Sifra) fooled him, but he still finds himself desperately drawn to the robot. His love for Sifra is treated with sincerity by the film, even though he’s a little too quick to overlook the fact that she is a robot who has literally been programmed to be his fantasy woman. By the time the interval rolls around, Aryan has the perfect plan to solve three problems: His lovesickness, Urmila’s eagerness to test Sifra’s skills further, and Aryan’s mother’s desire to organise a lavish wedding for her son. Aryan brings Sifra home to Mumbai, presenting her as his girlfriend from America.
The first half of TBMAUJ is undeniably entertaining if you don’t think about it too much. Shahid Kapoor capably leans into the exaggerated comedic moments and it’s fun to watch him return to dancing after nearly a decade. However, he fails to make Aryan truly likeable. Kriti Sanon is convincing as Sifra. Not only does she look stunning, she gives the audience exactly what they’d expect from a robot, from dead eyes to an impassive voice, and behavioural quirks that are mostly attributed to her being from the US.
Dharmendra, wearing berets and ever the romantic, seemingly picks up from his grandfather role in Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani (2023), although in this film, he has far less to do. He does, however, get to briefly dance around an outsized bottle of alcohol. Kapadia is saddled with a character who is frustratingly limited. Urmila, as the mind from which Sifra is born, should have had a far more involved role in TBMAUJ, but much like Sifra, she seems to exist only to bring the hero’s desires to life. It’s never explained why she designed Sifra to romantically appeal to Aryan, or why she feels blindsided when he goes and falls in love with the robot.
Despite niggling questions, Sifra and Aryan’s burgeoning romance is enjoyable. For Aryan’s family, Sifra is the ideal daughter-in-law. She can cook mountains of food in seconds, she does exactly what she is told (though she takes all commands literally) and, as Aryan’s mother points out, she looks like a human Barbie doll. The premise of a female robot masquerading as a typical Indian bahu (daughter-in-law) is not new for those unfortunate few who remember the 2016 television sit-com, Bahu Hamari Rajnikant. TBMAUJ may be glossier than the show, but the discomfort at the heart of this premise remains: Is a woman considered ideal only when she’s a robot that is indefatigably and exclusively of service to the family?
In an early scene, Aryan fires his house-help because the food she cooks is not to his taste. Later, he raves over the meals that Sifra cooks for him. At their first meeting, Aryan tells Sifra she doesn’t need to clean up after him because “I like to do all my work myself”. The next line has him asking her to get him coffee. It’s worth noting that at this point, he doesn’t know she’s a robot.
Throughout the film, Aryan insists he sees Sifra as more than just a robot, but he is constantly ordering her to do his bidding, as one would a human version of Alexa (which is what Sifra is in effect). Sifra doesn’t develop any personality, asks no questions and expresses no discomfort. When she becomes difficult to deal with, Aryan powers her off, literally shutting her down at will. When Aryan’s friend expresses concern about the unequal power dynamic in Aryan and Sifra’s relationship, Aryan justifies it by describing Sifra as being like a little girl who is still learning. In case you’re confused, don’t worry, we’re still talking about TBMAUJ, not Kabir Singh (2019). Same hero, same beard, same chain-smoking; different robot, sorry, heroine.
When Urmila (finally) questions the ethics and logic of turning her robot prototype into the Agnihotri family bahu, Aryan delivers a monologue in which he attempts to convince his aunt of his intentions and maturity. “I’ll be her best admin ever,” says Aryan, with Shahid Kapoor making his best puppy-dog-eyes at Dimple Kapadia, in order to distract us from just how skewed this notion of marriage is.
Male robots in Indian popular cinema are usually depicted as manifestations of their creator’s intellect — a Frankenstein experiment gone right — and who get to develop original personality and exercise agency. For example, in the Rajinikanth-starring blockbuster Enthiran (2010), we meet Chitti, a robot who is modelled after his creator, the scientist Dr. Vaseegaran. However, he quickly evolves from a simple orders-following machine to a self-aware entity. He is able to think for himself and feel emotions like love, jealousy and anger. As Chitti becomes more sentient, he also becomes more difficult to control and ultimately, Vaseegaran dismantles him.
In contrast, Sifra is an embodiment of a man’s desires (as gleaned from his digital footprint) and characterised only by subservience. It’s almost as though intelligence isn’t a requirement for a female robot since she exists only to serve. Even though there is a brief (and thrilling) interlude in which she acts out and refuses to obey orders, there’s no real character arc for Sifra. There is just one moment in which she asks if being a robot is a bad thing, hinting at an interiority, but TBMAUJ doesn’t delve into any existential questions.
The female robot is relegated to being a device that is just an impassive vehicle for her “admin’s” desires. When a young man in the neighbourhood discovers Sifra is a robot, his first instinct is to make a move on her while she pliantly accepts his touch. It takes Aryan flying into a possessive rage to prevent her from becoming a victim of sexual assault. Not only is it unsettling, this throwaway scene also feels indicative of how the film envisions ideals of masculinity and femininity. Sifra can lift heavy weights and process complex data, but she still needs a real man to save her. When she does defy (male) authority, she’s terrifying, and the film punishes her for her rebellion.
The final scene of TBMAUJ throws more than a couple of curveballs at us, including a surprise cameo that we won’t spoil, and a confirmation that the story of Aryan and Sifra is “to be continued”. For the most part, the film manages to entertain, though the humour begins to feel tired by the second half. TBMAUJ leaves us with this question: Would you rather fall in love with an imperfect human being with real feelings, or a perfect robot with programming? If nothing else, the film and Sifra — who appears to have taken over Sanon’s real Instagram account in a bid to promote the film — might prod you to re-evaluate your own relationship with technology and artificial intelligence.