Director: Laxman Utekar
Writers: Laxman Utekar, Maitrey Bajpai, Ramiz Ilham Khan
Cast: Vicky Kaushal, Sara Ali Khan, Inaamulhaq, Sharib Hashmi, Neeraj Sood, Rakesh Bedi
At first, it sounds like a fun idea. (Please remember “At first” for the rest of this review). In theory, Zara Hatke Zara Bachke is the exact inverse of Love Per Square Foot (2018), another romcom featuring Vicky Kaushal as a middle-class man aspiring to own a house. If Love Per Square Foot was about two colleagues faking a marriage to secure a flat in a joint-housing scheme, Zara Hatke Zara Bachke has a married couple faking a divorce to secure a flat in a government housing scheme. You know how the trope goes. If two strangers can fall in love by pretending to be married, a couple can fall apart by pretending to be divorced. It’s not the worst take on the Indian link between privacy and companionship. Throw in a noisy family or two, solid supporting actors, a half-decent soundtrack, and the formula is semi-foolproof. I say “semi” because the bar is low and crowded.
Saumya Chawla Dubey (Sara Ali Khan) convinces her cute-but-cheapskate husband, Kapil Dubey (Kaushal), to play along so that they can exploit the scheme aimed at low-income citizens and move out of his tiny family home. All they have to do is simulate a bitter split. Laxman Utekar’s previous film, Mimi (2021), had some pretending too: A righteous driver posed as the partner of the pregnant young protagonist to protect her from social stigma. His Hindi debut, Luka Chuppi (2019), also revolved around a live-in couple pretending to be newlyweds before feeling guilty for not being newlyweds (marriage propaganda!). So perhaps it’s only fitting to say that Zara Hatke Zara Bachke – like its predecessors – is a bad film pretending to be a good one. It’s also a regressive story posing as a woke one, and a tone-deaf movie pretending to be a funny one. Some of us don’t mind getting fooled. Some of us do.
For a while, my biggest problem was the annoying background score. You know, the sort that treats us like Cartoon Network enthusiasts from the Nineties. But there are sparks of a potentially cool romcom in the way Kapil and Saumya’s relationship pans out. Even after landing a divorce and qualifying for the scheme, the two initially can’t keep their hands off each other. If anything, the make-believe separation takes them back to their heady honeymoon period; they wait for each other’s calls like a freshly-minted teenage couple, they meet secretly like high-school lovers, and he blushes when he sees her at the window. I found myself updating this concept for an unrelated romcom: What if a husband and wife deliberately divorce as a part of their extreme roleplay sessions to spice up their chemistry? Or even better, what if they go on to marry different partners while having a raging affair with each other for the rest of their life? Or even better, what if they had just gotten his family in on the masterplan and the entire Indore locality had to pretend to hoodwink the government? Or EVEN better, what if the woman finally gets the house, gets pregnant out of wedlock, and the man pretends to be her husband again so that their live-in relationship is legitimate in the eyes of society? Okay, I went too far with the last one. That’s just Utekar’s three films combined into one twisted socio-comedy.
By the end, however, all hope is extinguished by a very familiar tone. Zara Hatke Zara Bachke’s emotional manipulation and home-is-where-the-heart-is theme slowly inch into Luv Ranjan territory. Ranjan’s recent Tu Jhoothi Main Makkaar thought it was being forward by featuring a career-minded woman who is so reluctant to tear her rich boyfriend away from his home that she chooses to compromise and live with his toxic joint family. This film, too, espouses similar values under the pretext of “living in the moment” and critiquing the save-for-the-future aspirations of middle-class millennials. Worse, a random health scare towards the end jolts our two young lovers into epiphany mode – which is just a sillier version of a parent faking illness when their kids threaten to break the umbilical cord. It plays out so readily with Kapil and Soumya as mute observers that a passing shot of them watching Baghban (2003) for the first time might have been more convincing.
But let’s imagine for a minute that the moral science lecture is well meaning. After all, it reflects the predicament of most middle-class marriages, where the couple convinces themselves that they’re doing the right thing by sacrificing their dreams at the altar of sanskari gaslighting. Let’s assume that the message isn’t the problem. (It is, but at this point we’re all pretending to be people we’re not). So what? The good – or bad – news is that Utekar’s treatment and retro worldview are bigger problems. His sense of comedy is a bit troubling. For effect, read the following lines in the voice of Hrithik Roshan’s Arjun from Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2011): Crass cross-cultural humour is not funny. Kapil’s bigoted chaste-Brahmin aunt hurling ‘colourful’ insults at Saumya’s Punjabi roots only to get her own redemption arc is not funny. Having a Muslim childhood friend (like in Mimi) only to patronize her identity (Saumya exploits the woman’s feelings for Kapil – don’t ask how) is not funny. Having a poor security guard as PSA bait for housing-loan schemes is not funny.
The film opens with a scene that encapsulates this tone. Kapil and Saumya are celebrating their second anniversary with a cake. His parents, aunt and uncle panic when they discover that the cake is not eggless, after which Saumya is blamed for having a ‘non-veg’ influence on Kapil. All of this is played for laughs. As is the idea of tricking Kapil’s childhood friend into holding him in public so that a photograph can incriminate him in court. (I know I said not to ask, but I’m telling you anyway). As is Kapil’s habit of tipping a child waiter so poorly that the waiter tips him back. The only time I actually chuckled is when Kapil’s friend, a brash divorce lawyer, fights their case with such Bollywood angst that the judge begs him to calm down. And maybe when Rakesh Bedi, as Saumya’s Sikh father, does the whole drinking-and-cussing stereotype with alarming conviction.
When the melodrama arrives in the second half, the relief is short-lived. In the sad montages, there are two shots that will haunt me for years: A tight low-angle close-up of Kapil’s contorted and red face while he’s doing yoga, and a close-up of Saumya tearfully stuffing her face with a Cadbury 5 Star bar in memory of their love. Vicky Kaushal is typically breezy and watchable, but such movies often feel like a waste of his abilities – the fact is that he could have played someone like Kapil in his sleep. Sara Ali Khan is fine when her character is pretending to resent her husband, because it’s supposed to be a bad performance within a real performance. But when Saumya actually starts hating on him, shades of those infamous Love Aaj Kal (2020) moments emerge – where it’s clear that the over-acting is a consequence of imitating life through the lens of art (or older Hindi movies).
I’m still wondering how the makers messed up a harmless reverse-marriage story. In a parallel world, I’d have opened this review with “at last” and not “at first”. But now it’s more like “Alas”. As in: Alas, the wait for a sweet and entertaining romcom – one that doesn’t overreach for cheap giggles; one that doesn’t use Hrishikesh Mukherjee as a front to appropriate middle cinema; one that treats audiences as humans and not market demographics – will continue. Until then, I’ll pretend to hope.