Directed by: Devanshu Singh
Written by: Manoj Kalwani
Cinematography: Riju Das
Edited by: Manan Sagar
Starring: Vikrant Massey, Kriti Kharbanda, Yamini Das, Gauahar Khan and Jameel Khan
Streaming on: Zee5 Premium
14 Phere is a cocktail of disparate tropes. It's a weird film – stranded between truth and fiction, cinema and life, funny and serious, romantic comedy and social drama. I'm sure the one-line pitch read "Khosla Ka Ghosla marries Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak". Which sounds funky enough on paper, but the on-screen translation is a hot mess. I can see what the makers were going for. The problem is that the levity looks awkward in an issue-based narrative, and the gravity looks clumsy in a satirical story. And when the two tones meet – like in an absurd climax – the joke is squarely on the viewer.
The premise is playful. The film opens with Sanjay (Vikrant Massey) and Aditi (Kriti Kharbanda) well into their happily ever after. The actual movie is over. Despite being from regressive small-town households – he's a Rajput from Jahanabad, she's a Jatt from Jaipur – the two seem to have bypassed all the conflicts of a 90s Bollywood potboiler. A flashback song establishes that they met in a Delhi college, and have been secretly together ever since. (I live in Mumbai, so I must mention that their spacious Gurgaon apartment looks mythical). The live-in couple is now facing 'marriage pressure' from their respective families. In fact, an early scene shows Sanjay on a video call with a prospective match – opposite an amused Aditi. Neither of them wants to defy their parents. So when Sanjay blurts out to his father that the girl he's seeing is of the same caste, the facade begins: The couple decides to hire a fake set of parents to hoodwink both families and, therefore, get hitched twice.
The tightrope balance – the acting, the hiccups, the elaborate plan, the tiptoeing – brings to mind Dibakar Banerjee's delightful debut, Khosla Ka Ghosla. Some of the elements are similar. Like Parvin Dabas' character, even Aditi nurses an American dream. Like Navin Nischol, even Jameel Khan and Gauahar Khan play Delhi theatre veterans who take up the role of the fake parents. But the cultural context is different. A young couple trying to fool their conservative families is not the same as a middle-class family trying to give a corrupt builder a dose of his own medicine. To the makers' credit, this script recognizes that resolution is not the same as redemption. Given that both sides are regular endorsers of honour killings, the film can't afford to have "Jaa Simran Jaa" epiphanies and change-of-heart declarations. It's not as simple as that. The protagonists may not want to hurt their parents, but they also don't want to be killed by them. And this is also the film's curse. We know that something will go wrong at some point – the bubble has to burst – but the makers are forced to stretch the scam beyond breaking point. There's no choice; an early misstep might have turned 14 Phere into a slasher thriller. One family is convinced, then the other, then the weddings come, and you keep thinking: How long? By the time the conflict does arrive, the film has painted itself into a corner. This shows in how the ending is constructed – cluelessness wearing the mask of chaos.
The good parts of the film never quite achieve fruition either. For instance, a parallel track involves the search for Sanjay's cousin sister: a Rajput girl who has eloped with her lower-caste lover. One of the better scenes features an emotional phone call between Sanjay and this girl, who is on the run in an unknown hotel room. (This brings to mind the honour-killing short of Love Sex Aur Dhoka, another Dibakar influence). But nothing comes of her fate – worse, she is eventually turned into a rom-com character instead of a real-life one. Then there's the rivalry between the two fake parents – one's a retired stage veteran and the other, "the Meryl Streep of Dilli". I like the chemistry between Jameel Khan and Gauahar Khan (who's enjoying a bit of a second wind), but again, you sense that the filmmakers are more taken by the idea of these two artists than their actual presence. Then there's also the point of conflict between the two young lovers, which is admittedly perceptive. Sanjay doesn't want to leave the country because he wants to be close to his mother (Yamini Das, playing Massey's mother for the second time this month after Haseen Dillruba). That the film then uses a sappy song to make Aditi understand the "magic of maternal love" is just lazy.
Other elements feel half-hearted. Like Sanjay's stage-acting passion – which exists only so that the plot can include the audition montage. Or the coincidences – an early chance encounter between Aditi's brother and Gauahar's Zubeena, for instance, is poorly executed. The performances are easy. Massey is functional, but Kriti Kharbanda's constant use of "yaar" rings hollow to the ears. The two seem to be saddled with characters who sound like woke versions of sanskari kids, if that makes sense. In pursuit of the prettiness of mainstream Hindi cinema, they sound perfectly progressive and urban in the big city – the small-town roots are barely visible – but appear as convincing as teenage Twitter threads while reasoning with their elders. The dissonance is stark. It's like nothing exists between the lines. The film is only what we see – nothing more, nothing less. It's why I never bought the "every scene must have a purpose" rule. Somewhere along the way, a story loses its spirit – and identity. And reviews end up using vague adjectives like "weird". It's a vicious cycle.