The Great Indian Family Review: Vicky Kaushal Starrer is a Good-Natured Social Satire
Director: Vijay Krishna Acharya
Writer: Vijay Krishna Acharya
Cast: Vicky Kaushal, Manushi Chhillar, Manoj Pahwa, Kumud Mishra, Yashpal Sharma
It’s hard to make a religious satire these days. But it’s probably harder to enjoy one. As a viewer, you’re constantly on the edge. You’re constantly afraid of your relationship with a film. You see a pandit wrapped in saffron cloth charge through a Muslim locality after cracking a ‘Surgical Strike’ joke, and wonder: Is that offensive? You see a Brahmin man blast his progressive nephew with “Hindu khatre mein nahi dal sakte (we cannot put Hinduism in danger),” and think: Oh no, that’s too direct. You see a spoofy rivalry between two godmen to win the ‘ritual contract’ of a rich family, and wonder: Can the makers do that? You see a young man asking his girlfriend whether his kiss felt Hindu or Muslim (to which she says “Indian”), and fret: Will people get it? Is that funny? You see a confused hero trying to embrace Islam by practising Urdu but mistaking “Allahu Akbar” with “Salaam Walekum” – and worry for the film. You see a scooter-riding pandit escape traffic violations by chanting “Jai Shri Ram” to the cops, and worry: Is that too risky?
But the triumph of The Great Indian Family lies in how unperturbed it remains by the current climate. The film doesn’t seem to be worried about how it will be perceived. It’s unapologetically playful, direct, melodramatic, corny, cheeky and preachy. There’s an innocence about the way it unfolds – an innocence that has all but vanished from today’s politically charged and reactionary Hindi-film landscape. It may speak to the India of 2023, but it could have been written in any of the previous decades. There’s more text than subtext. The secularism is old-school, a throwback to not only the clear-eyed satires of the recent past (Dharam Sankat Mein (2015), PK (2014), OMG – Oh My God! (2012)) but also the outspoken social terrains of the Seventies and Eighties. In a way, it’s kind of fitting that this unadorned wokeness comes from the House of Yash Raj Films (YRF), a storytelling space where tradition often wears the veil of newness. At some point, it feels like the film – and its courage to bypass the pitfalls of modern discourse – starts to pacify its paranoid viewers (like myself). The external noise fades away. The nerves stop jingling. And all that remains is light-hearted, good-natured entertainment.
Rejection of Toxic Humour
Written and directed by Vijay Krishna Acharya (he is of Thugs of Hindostan (2018), Dhoom 3 (2013) and Tashan (2008) fame), The Great Indian Family has a premise that’s quite similar to Dharam Sankat Mein. But of course, the footprint has changed. The staging is simple: A young pandit named Ved Vyas Tripathi (Vicky Kaushal), who hails from the foremost Brahmin family in Balrampur, discovers that he is Muslim by birth. What follows is a serio-comical crisis of identity, faith and a whole lot of on-the-nose conflict. Ved Vyas, also known as Billu and Bhajan Kumar, becomes (in)famous, goes viral, tries to ‘learn’ how to be a Muslim, has emotional face-offs with his family, and delivers a monologue that only a fluid actor like Vicky Kaushal can pull off. The tropes are familiar. There are no surprises. But it’s the approach that defines the theme. One faith isn’t demonised to glorify the other; the characters are flawed but with a capacity to change; the setting is (past) tense rather than bitter.
The film does the little things right. Billu’s voice-over, for instance, is elevated by Kaushal’s hybrid grasp of respect and irreverence. The environment is over-designed but utopian. The sight of a Hindu chasing a Muslim – or vice versa – doesn’t feel sinister; this is the kind of film in which such chases culminate not in violence but college-style ragging. The tensions are nearly harmless; a rival pandit family come across as conventional villains rather than rabid Islamophobes. The flashback of a communal riot is not milked; the drama is limited to a hospital mix-up. Even when Billu gets brutally trolled on social media – with photoshopped images of a half-bearded face and derogatory slogans – there’s a non-toxic levity about these portions. It’s something we used to associate with Rajkumar Hirani blockbusters, where the message is expected to be bigger than the method.
The vibe of Billu’s backstory – where, as a child, he becomes a reluctant performer of bhajans at the birthday party of his school crush – is amusing without being aggressive. A lesser film might have harped on the love-hate binaries of the religion, but here the boy views his faith as a family business and a medium for his art. At the same time, his reading of Hinduism is never insincere or defiant; if anything, it is more balanced than the middle-aged adults around him. I also like that the central tradition of the Tripathi family is ‘democracy,’ a system where a voting box is used to settle any sensitive issues (like whether Billu should be disowned or not). As is evident, the metaphors are unsubtle but endearing.
Floating Above Bigotry
It’s also nice that the commentary in the end is not skewed towards a side. It raps the knuckles of the public, yes, but it also conveys that democracy is the language of plurality. It’s about choice, not imposition; the thriving of one community need not be looked at as a threat to another. As a result, the ‘Indian-ness’ that emerges feels a little more genuine. It makes you want to overlook the studio-movie flaws – like a totally dispensable romantic angle; the perpetuation of caste; a few festive songs; and a father-son track that conveniently puts the Tripathi patriarch (Kumud Mishra) on a contactless pilgrimage while Billu’s world gets torn between saffron and green. Thankfully, veterans like Mishra are so perceptive that it takes a single smile to turn a potentially feral moment – like the father ‘confronting’ his son at the gate of a mosque – into a tender reckoning.
There’s also the film’s ability to write in lazy stereotypes as cultural conditioning. Billu and his ilk are presented as victims of ignorance; they know no better. Consequently, Billu’s time with a kind Muslim family doubles up as both humour and education. There’s always a sense of hope about the way he agrees to learn, imitate, embarrass himself and understand. At one point, Billu’s Muslim friend teases his diction, and it almost feels like an in-joke about how commercial Bollywood thrives on cultural oblivion. Again, in any other context, I can’t imagine the scene of a chaste pandit (Manoj Pahwa) ‘testing’ Billu by whispering “Allahu Akbar” into his ears while he’s asleep. I can’t imagine a media-covered DNA test being the focus of a climax. I also can’t imagine a young Brahmin boy cursing his heritage because the girls end up God-zoning him and touching his feet.
I suppose that’s why I like The Great Indian Family so much. In unfolding the way it does, it assures us that it’s fine to imagine again. It tells us to stop thinking – or overthinking – and keep imagining. Our predicament is not very different from its gentle fictions. All of the characters, too, are trapped in the no man’s land between societal stigma and inner truth. Everyone is so anxious about “what people will say” that they lose track of the fact that they, too, are those people. I was so worried about how a nation might react to a film that I forgot I was part of that nation. The genial tone reminded me of my own childhood in Ahmedabad in the Nineties, back when bigotry hadn’t gone mainstream yet. Back when patriotism and religion were not such loaded terms. It says something that nostalgia is a form of imagination today. It’s not as if a film like this doesn’t take itself seriously; it’s that the film is asking us to not take ourselves so seriously.