When I saw the trailer of ‘Badhaai Do’, I was skeptical. I had tucked it away in the corner of my mind marked, “Don’t bother”. So when I was asked to review the movie, I wasn’t all that thrilled. When we combine Bollywood, comedy, and homosexuality, the result has always been nothing short of upsetting. And, I think, the expectations were not very different this time either, and Bengaluru traffic did not aid much in assuaging things. I arrived 15 minutes into the movie and sank into my cushy seat at the point when Shardul (Rajkumar Roa) convinces his family the co-worker he was interested in had gotten married because his family took too long to accept her (and not because he’s, you know, gay). It didn’t take many brain cells to piece things together.
There is a lot to like about the movie. While it relies on some stereotypes, such as the trope of the lesbian PT teacher, its effort to drive the conversation beyond this is commendable. Sumi (Bhumi Pednekar) is not someone you would peg as a “tomboy”. Shardul, on the other hand, is a macho policeman, who falls prey to most patriarchal thought-processes. They both live in Dehradun, and their paths cross when Sumi, who decided to find herself a partner through a dating app, is catfished by an incel who attempts to blackmail a lesbian woman into having sex with him. Horrific. Sumi decides to register a complaint, and there meets the hero and heroine. However, we know from the get-go this is not a typical love story. Shardul, who realises Sumi is a lesbian, decides to stalk her until she confronts him. He then lays down his ‘proposal’. What follows is the decision to get married so they both finally have the opportunity to live their lives.
I do believe that the movie – the first one in a series of Bollywood movies about some aspect of queerness – is able to dig a little deeper. The movie manages to address the isolation of being queer, the suffocation of hiding one’s identity, and the fear of being outed. On a date, Rimjhim (Chum Darang) talks about being estranged from her family for revealing the truth. And Sumi empathizes, “No one understands… they think we are perverts.” Her fear is actualised at a later point when her younger brother calls her a pervert after finding out the truth about her. The fear plays in different ways for both characters. While Sumi’s identity is a secret, she is more confident about it. She is a lesbian and she is looking for love. While she doesn’t proclaim it, she does not seem like she is running away from her reality. Shardul, on the other hand, does not seem to have fully come to terms with his identity. Forced to become a policeman, Shardul finds himself under pressure to hide his identity. On their “honeymoon”, Shardul even says, “I am more afraid of the policemen than I am of the thieves.”
At the time of their wedding, Shardul and Sumi are barely friends. On their honeymoon, Sumi is not entirely comfortable with him, but also feels a certain sense of fondness for him. However, like any couple, the problems begin as soon as the honeymoon ends. They hardly get along. They try to establish boundaries as roommates and keep each other at arm’s length. However, over the course of the film, their relationship evolves and becomes a sort of support space for each other. There is a lot of laughter that couches the moments of pain.
The second half of the movie raises the conflict: they are married for almost a year and have no children, which quickly takes us to the resolution (better editing could have helped make the storyline much more crisp). Shardul’s entire family takes it upon themselves to ensure that the couple become parents. Everyone has advice, comments, questions that their noses could not be deeper into their lives. They use the plotline to attempt to talk about adoption and the lack of laws that allow the LGBTQIA+ community to have a family. The movie merely touches upon it through a placard and two pieces of dialogue.
There are many things that did not sit right with me, starting with Shardul Takur’s obsession with knowing people’s “title” (read: caste, or as Shardul so subtly puts it, “surname”). His disdain for Rimjhim and calling her “Timtim” does not sit well. And well there is the obvious fact: why are there no queer actors. While the scenes of Pride and a gay wedding are refreshing to see on screen, it is far from enough. Allowing for representation of queer people only in the scenes that are “loud” and depict Pride is shallow. It makes you wonder when there will be a space for the community to have a say in the stories that Bollywood chooses to tell. Simply brushing it off as an actor playing a role is disingenuous. Yes, a queer actor could play a heterosexual character, but the converse (even for the most spectacular performance) is not equivalent. The most obvious reason being that there are very few rounded queer characters that ever make it on screen. It just seemed like a huge, wasted opportunity.
At the end of the day, ‘Badhaai Do’, with all its flaws, manages to open the door for a conversation about something important. And let’s be honest, it’s about time.