Cast: Ayushmann Khurrana, Bhumi Pednekar, Sanjay Mishra, Seema Pahwa, Alka Amin, Sheeba Chaddha, Shrikant Verma
Director: Sharat Katariya
Rating: 3 stars
For most of Dum Laga Ke Haisha we sit in stunned appreciation at this surprise gift from the House of Chopras. The same production-direction clan that gave us chiffon-clad heroines dancing in the Alps — women who defined the female silhouette to aspire to — has now given us a heroine whose flesh will bounce back when poked, and then wobble for a bit.
Dum Laga Ke Haisha’s heroine is not curvy. She is fat. Bulging with love handles. Several. And not just that. The clan that put Keukenhof in the Netherlands on our itinerary has now given us a small-town, low-income past that’s charmingly authentic and brilliant. We sit smiling, in admiration. For a long time. But then it begins to doubt its own premise.
It’s Haridwar, 1995. A town of freshly bathed men and women. A world of small shopkeepers and their families. Of boys who attend the shakha in the mornings, exercising, making friends, and mothers who read not the expiry dates on masala and isabgol packets. Prem Prakash Tiwari (Ayushmann Khurrana) and his father, Chandrabhan Tiwari (Sanjay Mishra), run a music shop in town. In a narrow space crammed with cassettes, they’ll give you songs of your choice, Side A and B.
Home is Ganga kinare where Prem’s mother, Shashi (Alka Amin), and his Bua (Sheeba Chaddha) cook and plan weddings. The first half of the film is devoted almost singularly to romancing and showcasing this world that’s been created with a lot of love and care. Writer-director Sharat Katariya’s confidence and control over this milieu is apparent in several superb scenes — constructed with nostalgia and belonging — that keep giving us a flavour of the past. His honesty to the world his film is set in is touching.
But it’s the common, open area of the Tiwari home, a space where every aspiration, event, disappointment is marked by comments — laced with name-calling, bitching or, simply, muft ki salah — that teases the past into animated existence. In this veranda, populated by pitch-perfect characters and performances, the banter is beautifully orchestrated, and it forms the emotional pivot on which the film rests.
Even though hugely reminiscent of and influenced by Rajat Kapoor’s affecting Ankhon Dekhi, for a debutant this is mature filmmaking. Soon a marriage is arranged. Prem, who didn’t clear his 10th class, is married off to Sandhya (Bhumi Pednekar), a BEd qualified to teach. Sandhya is a convention-busting fatty. In the brief glimpses we get of her, she seems adorable. A cheerful, playful girl dying to burst out of her body-image. Looks like Sandhya won’t be contained. Won’t behave her size.
Sandhya arrives in Prem’s world, and the Tiwari family, with some assistance from Subhadra Rani (Sandhya’s mother played by Seema Pahwa), tries to nudge a love story onto the bed. The newly-weds are pushed, goaded almost, to perform. But Prem won’t touch her. He’s embarrassed of her. Of having to marry her. And it doesn’t help that she’s more educated than him.
For a bit, when Sandhya tries, there are cute scenes. But the film has now stalled. It keeps giving us more of the same. The fault partly lies with the plot that is now bereft of interesting ideas, but much more with the film reneging on its promise. After making a bold and very interesting choice of putting a fat girl at the centre of its love story, the film goes coy.
Dum Laga Ke Haisha is politically correct. It doesn’t pity Sandhya, nor does it laugh at her expense. But it also doesn’t embrace her. So scared it is to acknowledge its own choice, of somehow bringing attention to the fat girl, that it pretends she’s not fat. Perhaps Katariya had little faith in Bhumi Pednekar’s acting ability, or perhaps in the size of his heroine. Whatever the reason, the film keeps itself at a distance from Sandhya, casting a neutral observer’s eye on the proceedings. After making a fat girl its raison d’etre, the film pretends it isn’t an issue at all.
The film doesn’t invest in her emotionally. All we get are some basic facts. Nothing that would make her rise above her weight in any real, meaningful way. That makes our own emotional connect with Sandhya tentative. Worse, the love story rides pillion on a husband-wife race that pops up conveniently. Though the race is treated as a metaphor for marriage and love, it makes the love story seem facetious.
Bhumi is expressive, but isn’t given much. Her Sandhya isn’t allowed to come to life, and remains defined by her size. Barring a few silly continuity issues — a glaring one involves an aunty with rollers, and there’s Prem who starts off with a lisp which disappears with marriage — Dum Laga Ke Haisha is accomplished in many aspects. Visually it’s well imagined and articulated, thanks in no small part to the art direction, cinematography and its fast and on-the-mark dialogue which have a cadence that breathes life into the film’s sleepy, sunny world.
Though the film is emotionally unsure, it manages to extract some lovely performances from its sturdy ensemble of supporting actors. Ayushmann Khurrana as Prem, eventually the only keeper of the film’s artifice — a fat heroine — delivers an exceptionally astute performance, reminding us once again of Vicky, the delightful donor....