Director: Raj Mehta
Writers: Rishhabh Sharma, Anurag Singh, Sumit Batheja, Neeraj Udhawani
Cast: Varun Dhawan, Kiara Advani, Anil Kapoor, Neetu Kapoor, Prajakta Koli, Manish Paul, Tisca Chopra
Cinematographer: Jay Patel
Editor: Manish More
Jugjugg Jeeyo is a fascinating film. It speaks like a child but thinks like an adult. It's jarringly loud, long, crude and decadent. A gay colleague crashes the anniversary dinner of a couple, hits on the man, counsels them and unwittingly gets them to request a divorce from each other. Almost every scene is a composition of these two disparate tones: high-pitched humour and high-pitched melodrama. Characters are either funny or serious. There is no middle ground. But for once, this dated language doesn't feel random – it becomes a narrative smokescreen to renovate the vintage Bollywood junction of family and romance. The themes are old, but the resolutions are new.
Marriage is the cornerstone of this film, but not in a way a seasoned Hindi film enthusiast might imagine. It opens with a love story that culminates in marriage. Over the course of a short song, Kukoo and Naina meet as kids, romance as young adults and get their happily ever after; the song ends with the gorgeous couple posing with his handsome parents and sister at their wedding, in a shot straight out of the Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham playbook. But the rest of the film subverts this playbook – by becoming a marriage story that struggles to culminate in love.
The premise is not as flimsy as it looks. Five years into their marriage, Kuku (Varun Dhawan) and Naina (Kiara Advani) want a divorce. They were once a glossy movie couple; now they're a gloomy life couple. Kukoo is bitter and resentful because they moved to Toronto for her high-flying corporate career; he's just a bouncer at a club. They decide to attend his baby sister Ginny's (Prajakta Koli) wedding in Patiala as a 'happy couple' before starting the separation process. Naturally, this fateful stint at home with an adoring family will become their medicine; it will give them the perspective they seek. How this happens, though, is what sets Jugjugg Jeeyo apart from other run-of-the-mill social dramedies. The home this couple returns to hijacks their story so swiftly that a sense of disillusionment – and not inspiration – threatens to cement their cracks. Kukoo is all set to tell his father, Bheem, about his impending divorce when he discovers that Bheem is planning to leave his own wife, Geeta, after 35 years of marriage. He can't digest the thought of his parents divorcing. The first half is mostly fun and games: Kukoo and his brother-in-law Gurpreet (a hysterical Manish Paul) hatch harebrained plots to flush the father's 'youth' out of his system; they assume it's just a midlife crisis. The second half features intense confrontations, fewer gags and surprisingly mature writing; gender and generational conflicts come to the fore.
The flawed-parent trope is not a familiar one in mainstream Hindi cinema, less so when the tone resists the moral segregation of heroes and villains. Beneath the crass layers of volume, the writing is perceptive. For instance, I like that siblings Kukoo and Ginny are driven by the subconscious urge to emulate their parents. Ginny is settling for an arranged marriage just like them, and Kukoo is ready to end his own love marriage because he feels like he doesn't have what they do. He has grown up in a household of male agency, which ironically has denied him an identity in his own relationship. I also like that the women in the film refuse to be clever or playful to be accepted as characters. Both Geeta and Naina stay comfortable in their own skin, unlike their attention-seeking partners, who are busy deflecting drama with humour so that nobody notices their inadequacies.
I think the casting of Jugjugg Jeeyo doubles up as its own screenplay. No antique star has aged as elegantly – and sportingly – as Anil Kapoor. One gets the sense that he is enjoying the process of reinventing the relationship between performance and vanity; most of his characters today sound like customized versions of himself. As the father who feels far younger than he is, Kapoor is technically the protagonist of this film. His Bheem is an extension of the roving patriarch from Dil Dhadakne Do (including a heart scare) – except his weapon here is comedy. It's an interesting choice, because the comedy becomes not just a lens but also a mirror for the people watching him. One might argue that Bheem being a funny guy – punctuated by annoying sound cues – trivializes the gravity of who he really is: a manipulative, selfish and deceitful partner. But the film is not interested in judging him so much as addressing us.
When Kapoor makes us laugh in every other scene, it's a reminder of how movies have culturally conditioned us to mistake male entitlement for charm, aura and levity. It may be entertaining, but it's also a citation about entertainment. (Early on, we see the man joke about how he had such low expectations from his son that he's almost proud Kukoo is a bouncer in Toronto – a nod to Anupam Kher's "you succeeded at failing in London!" line in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, the most popular Bollywood classic to propagate the view that men are right as long as they are funny or furious). Most other actors might have struggled to pull off drunken rants about "boring wives" and partying at stripclubs without seeming offensive. But Anil Kapoor's inherent charisma turns Bheem into a man who's so difficult to dislike that we feel culpable for liking him. Unlike most movie patriarchs, he doesn't get a full-fledged redemption arc – this keeps the film honest in terms of just how far the viewer is willing to follow him. It also allows the film to have not one but two endings; the first (a song at a wedding) is how such movies used to end back in the day, and the second (at an airport) is how life tends to begin again.
Neetu Kapoor, as Geeta, is a nice antidote to all those long-suffering and stoic wives in older movies. There's a distinct sense of awareness and wisdom on her face that – especially in the second half – allows the film to transcend the burden of social relevance. In her hands, Geeta's weakness becomes her strength. Some of the film's most cathartic moments emerge from her ability to be the bigger person in the face of crisis. Her chemistry with Kiara Advani, in particular, stands out because it's the two women who convey – through conversation, compromise and connection – that every marriage story need not be a love story. That there are trust stories and respect stories, too. Advani has carved a career out of playing an old-school heroine, so it's good to see her as a female lead in a contemporary story. Like Deepika Padukone, she's a great crier; it comes handy for a resolute character who rations her tears for the man-child she's married to. During a massive spat with Kukoo, her voice reaches such a fever pitch that it's nearly heartbreaking to hear a barely audible "sorry" at the end.
Varun Dhawan's performance here reminded me a little of October. Kukoo is so incompatible with the notion of masculinity that he roots for his parents to earn a reason to root against himself. Dhawan does rage well, and watching Kukoo is like watching a child blame his elders for leaving him to fend for himself. Discovering the truth about his father forces him to confront the truth about his own marriage. There are multiple shots of him waking up in bed with a jolt – because this is the journey of his awakening – and Dhawan commits to the role of the least intelligent member of the family. You look at him and find it plausible that someone like Kukoo would try to get his father laid to 'cure' him. You also find it plausible that he is frightened to develop a mind of his own.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway from Jugjugg Jeeyo is that it – sometimes clumsily, sometimes smartly – frees one generation from the responsibility of living for another. It is the second successive Dharma title after Gehraiyaan to suggest that it can only be all about loving your parents if it's all about understanding – and accepting – them as people first. It's a tough truth, and the film throws the kitchen sink at us to prove that most Indian households are incomplete without kitchen sinks.