The first 15 minutes of Shuddh Desi Romance should be shown to aspiring screenwriters in the class on set-ups. En route to his wedding, handsome, hesitant lunk Raghu (Sushant Singh Rajput) finds himself falling for Gayatri (Parineeti Chopra), whose acquaintance he made a couple of hours ago. They get talking and, as often happens on long bus journeys, share a couple of awkward kisses. The next day, moments before the varndmala, he takes a bathroom break and disappears. The grace note, however, is what announces Jaideep Sahni as writer even before the credits roll. Upon learning that her fiancée has flown the coop, the bride-to-be sighs, sits down and orders a cold drink.
Back home in Jaipur, Raghu runs into Gayatri again. Soon enough, sparks and clothes fly, and the two of them move in together, with Gayatri warning her lover not to take things too seriously. All is bliss, right until they decide, in a drunken dare of sorts, to get married. The subsequent twist can be spotted fairly easily, but all we’ll say is that it leaves a window open for Tara (Vaani Kapoor), Raghu’s ex-fiancée, to re-enter the film. Raghu, faced with two women who talk very fast and are way too smart for him, ends up comically paralyzed by indecision.
Sahni’s return (his last filmed screenplay was in 2009) has been eagerly anticipated – both by those who consider Khosla Ka Ghosla and Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year to be modern masterpieces, and by those who simply find his movies very entertaining. Shuddh Desi Romance, directed by Maneesh Sharma, subverts just about every Bollywood romantic trope you can think of, but even more audacious are the bombs Sahni sets off under the seat of middle-class morality. Everything from live-in relationships to passing judgment based on someone’s dating history is dragged out into the open, discussed and dismissed. Like David Dhawan is fond of saying, leave your beliefs at the door.
It’s hardly surprising that Chopra is a great fit with Sahni’s homespun, unsentimental dialogue (there’s no other actor we’d rather hear say “inquiriyaan”). What is less expected is how consistently Rajput, in his second film after Kai Po Che!, vies with her for the audience’s sympathies, even as his character keeps getting his dignity handed to him by two headstrong, independent women. Vaani Kapoor, in her first film, is almost as merciless as Chopra, which is saying something. And the other Kapoor, Rishi, is just fine as a stand-in for “old-fashioned views”.
Sharma and production designer TP Abid get a lot out of little details – a bottle of Romanov (not Smirnoff) in the kitchen, for instance, speaks to Gayatri’s outlook and financial situation. Sharma also uses the backdrop of Jaipur life in the same effective way he did Delhi in Band Baaja Baaraat. Unfortunately, like that film, Shuddh Desi Romance runs out of gas with about half an hour to go. Tara’s return, though welcome, is never convincing, her actions after returning even less so. It’s as if the film runs out of taboos to break, and ends up repeating the same ones. You can only shock all the people some of the time.