Abdul Qadir (Anupam Kher), a clerk in the Hyderabad High Court, wants to get his daughter married. His daughter, Gullu (Parineeti Chopra), wants to study in the U.S., but her father can’t afford the tuition fee. He also can’t afford the dowry most prospective grooms seem to be demanding.
One evening, a potential groom and his family come to see his daughter. The familiar rounds of negotiations begin: the groom’s father frowns at the amount Qadir can shell out for his daughter; in return, he struggles to find the right response, but finally arrives at a price that’s acceptable to both. But Gullu calls off the marriage because her husband-to-be lied about his educational qualifications.
“You can’t get an Oxford graduate in Rs 15 lakh,” Qadir lets out a nonchalant complaint to his daughter the next morning, as she drives him to work. What’s remarkable about this conversation is its casual tone, as if father and daughter are discussing an ordinary day in their lives. Social evils acquire horrendous connotations when they become mundane; dowry has ceased to disconcert Qadir — he’s now just fixated on getting the right deal for his daughter. Later in the day, when someone offers to bribe him at work, he brusquely refuses the offer, choosing to, instead, rant against the corruption that’s taken over his professional life. Qadir’s hypocrisies are intriguing: he’s a man who can’t differentiate between the two kinds of venality — one that’s approved by the society (dowry), the other that’s sanctioned by an individual (bribe). Habib Faisal (writer, Do Dooni Chaar, Band Baaja Baaraat, and Daawat-e-Ishq‘s director) excels in exploring the oddities of less-privileged Indians who are caught between who they want to become and what the society wants them to be. When Gullu finally falls in love, she’s convinced that the fear of dowry won’t loom large over her father. As she meets the groom’s family on the terrace of a plush multiplex, the groom’s father asks for a little “help” for his son’s tuition and living expenses in the U.S. — an amount that totals up to Rs 80 lakh. When Qadir haggles, the groom’s father relents, saying he’s fine with Rs 60 lakh. As soon as the father-in-law-to-be quotes the revised amount, an advertisement banner, some distance away, unveils, declaring, “70% off”. These are deft writing flourishes that underscore our retrograde mindset — being rich doesn’t equate to being modern.
The film shines through the first half when it’s not encumbered with a “story”. The endearing tussle between the old (Anupam Kher) and the new (Parineeti Chopra) is riveting, and so is the persistence of Gullu’s dream: wanting to study in the U.S. But soon the film insists on flinging a story at us: Gullu unlawfully using the section 498A to con a dowry-demanding family. Not only does this plot point seem laboured, but even its implication is troublesome: you need to be depraved to realise your true calling. The man to be conned here is Tariq (Aditya Roy Kapoor), the owner of a renowned eatery in Lucknow. And if you have seen enough Bollywood films, it’s not difficult to figure out what kind of a movie Daawat-e-Ishq turns into after this revelation. A faux romantic subplot, sporadically entertaining in parts owing to the last remnants of assured writing, is built on a litany of lies, which later troubles Gullu. Now, the film doesn’t see her as a character but as a “heroine” who has to compulsorily fall in love with the film’s leading man. It also doesn’t help that Kapoor, playing an uncouth businessman, is barely convincing. The film is now in a hurry to tie its loose ends together; the characters rely on epiphanies and, finally, a predictable end is realised, fulfilling a perfunctory narrative goal. What’s unfulfilled, however, is the quiet promise that lit up the film’s first half.
The review was first published at The Sunday Guardian