In recent times, I have not been more uncomfortable in a movie hall as I was during the first 30 minutes of Dum Laga Ke Haisha. The film opens to 1995’s Haridwar, where Prem Prakash Tiwari (Ayushmann Khurrana) is still trying to figure out what he wants from life: he’s never cleared 10th grade; he can barely speak fluent English; on top of that, his dad (Sanjay Mishra) frequently pelts him with slippers. These characters and set-ups give rise to funny scenes aplenty, and my theatre’s audience lapped them up (so did I), but the raucous laughter, which came later, was reserved for someone else: Sandhya (Bhumi Pednekar), the film’s female lead (who is a unique Bollywood heroine — she’s stocky). The theatre’s audience, however, wasn’t laughing at her character; it was laughing at her, at her being… fat. It would have been still okay if the film saw her as a perpetually bumbling, clueless drifter, but she’s not — she’s a B. Ed graduate who wants to become a teacher; she also wants to get married. So, a few minutes into the film, when Sandhya, wearing a red sari, broke into an exuberant twist, the theatre audience found it funny; when Sandhya wore a satin nightdress to appear attractive (and seduce her husband), the audience reacted as if they were watching a stand-up; when Prem called her “saand (buffalo)” behind her back, in front of his friends, my fellow film viewers couldn’t contain their laughs again.
After a certain age, jokes about blacks, homosexuals and body weight stop being funny. That age should ideally be a good few years before you turn adult. Moreover, this audience didn’t consist of flippant teenagers but adults in their late 20s, an age that expects people to know better. But as the film found its tone, rhythm and story, the (misplaced) laughter slowly began to die. The theatre was absolutely silent when Sandhya, perched on the backseat of her husband’s (Prem) scooter, gently held his shoulder, and a lilting song underlined the scene, because we saw someone striving for acceptance. When we heard her teach laws of gravitation to a class (the camera at this point was just outside the room so she couldn’t be seen), and as the camera slowly tracked towards her, we saw an empty classroom, and understood her ambition of being a teacher; when Sandhya slapped Prem for insulting her in front of his friends, we saw someone who wasn’t ashamed of who she was. It’s in scenes like these that Dum Laga Ke Haisha reclaims its heroine; it tells us that Bhumi Pednekar is no different from a conventional Bollywood heroine — she can dance, fall in love and, if the need arises, kick ass. Her being fat cannot — and doesn’t — define her.
But these scenes alone, no matter how important, couldn’t have transformed Dum Laga Ke Haisha into an impressive achievement. And there are a few jarring elements in the film quite early on: for instance, it doesn’t get its tone right straightaway — unnecessarily filmy and over-the-top comic sequences often sit awkwardly in settings, and amidst characters that are rooted in an ordinary world; the characters often rattle off lines, and react a certain way to make the audience laugh, as opposed to behaving naturally (I didn’t buy the older ladies of the Tiwari household talking loudly, unabashedly, and very frequently, about sex whenever their daughter-in-law was around); even the climax’s hook, at the outset, looks contrived — a desperate lunge to end the film on a pleasant note.
But Dum Laga Ke Haisha comes into its own in the second half, where the film slowly unveils its leads, and what they are grappling with: Prem is ashamed of the fact that, at 25, he can’t read English or make a living, which is why he won’t find an attractive girl; Sandhya feels let down because Prem didn’t look beyond her weight, and remained indifferent to her — a reason that, she believes, may have an unpleasant consequence: she will never find a suitable guy. Given Dum Laga Ke Haisha is a romantic comedy, it manages to achieve something special in the genre’s confines: Prem falling for Sandhya is devoid of an arc; there’s no sudden change of heart or profound realisation here; he gravitates towards her slowly (and without a definite, discernible reason), possibly seeing her as who she is, and not what she is.
Dum Laga Ke Haisha tells us that we are empowered and debilitated in unique ways, that it’s unjustified to slap a tag on others, and that we are a bundle of contradictions — lurching one way or the other based on our conveniences. But what really sealed the deal for me were the film’s end credits: in this sequence, a Kumar Sanu song kicks in (which, coincidentally, also opened the film), sans any judgement (an admirable choice, given he is now, at best, a maudlin reminder of the ’90s), and Pednekar, along with Khurrana, graces the screen; she’s decked up, dancing with her hero to the tune of a conventional romantic number. The hero and the heroine are equals here, as they should be. No one in the audience laughed at this sequence; some of them even clapped.
Originally published at The Sunday Guardian.