Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Dhadak: Review

Dhadak is pretty much the same film as Sairat. Then why does it feel so different? Shashank Khaitan’s film is, in many instances, a scene-for-scene remake of the 2016 Marathi film, but something’s missing—and not just the thrill of first discovery. In Sairat, Nagraj Manjule turned Romeo-and-Juliet clichés on their head through his lyrical, heady direction and by messing with archetypes (one inversion of viewer expectations involved the lower-caste protagonist being played by a fair-skinned actor, and his upper-caste lover by a darker-skinned one). Dhadak, on the other hand, smoothens out the differences.

Midway through a food-guzzling obstacle course, Madhukar (Ishaan Khatter) catches his first glimpse of Parthavi (Janhvi Kapoor). She’s the daughter of hotelier and local politician Ratan Singh (Ashutosh Rana); he’s the son of a restaurant owner—lower down in the social order, but not as visibly, uncomfortably low as the boy’s family in Sairat. Madhukar is instantly besotted, and we get a version of Sairat’s Yad Lagla, following the ecstatic youngster as he leaps into a lake, runs home, washes and changes, rushes to the well where Parthavi is, and jumps in. It’s a faithful reworking, with Ajay-Atul’s fine music given new lyrics by Amitabh Bhattacharya, though somewhat let down at the end by Kapoor’s gaze, vague and unreadable where Rinku Rajguru’s was both unimpressed and keenly appraising.

Madhukar sets about wooing Parthavi—scenes debased by the film’s use of his friend, Purshottam (Shridhar Watsar), significantly shorter than the other characters, as a comic prop. This is the sort of desperate shtick you’d think Indian cinema had given up in the ‘90s, but Khaitan does seem to have a fondness for it, resurrecting the predatory gay figure in Badrinath Ki Dulhania. Here, Purshottam is dressed in a school uniform and sent to profess Madhukar’s love, a scene as head-scratchingly weird as it is offensive.

There was always the danger that Bollywood would play down the caste narrative of Sairat. There are two mentions of caste in Dhadak—both by Madhukar’s father when he warns the boy not to pursue the upper-caste girl. Yet, these do not arise organically from the material as it did in, say, Mukkabaaz, where caste is in the air, in the food. Parthavi’s family doesn’t mention caste at all. The film ends with an intertitle about lives lost to “honour killings”—the same ballpark, perhaps, but a dilution.

Soon, the young lovers are on the run, moving through Mumbai and Nagpur and settling in Kolkata. There they start to build a new life, renting a tiny room, Madhukar working as a waiter, Parthavi as a helpline employee. Khaitan, who captured with some accuracy the rhythms of Uttar Pradesh life and speech in Badrinath Ki Dulhania, fumbles here. Udaipur, a city with delightful wall art, is reduced to a set of tourist clichés: statutes, havelis, TV soap framing and a surfeit of meaningless aerial shots. Most of the dialogue is in Rajasthani-inflected Hindi, though it’s a nice touch when the action moves out of the state and Khaitan allows characters to speak in Marathi and Bengali without providing subtitles, allowing us to share in the isolation of the couple.

Whether by design or not, Dhadak comes to rest on the shoulders of its two leads. Ishaan Khatter, son of actors Rajesh Khattar and Neelima Azeem and half-brother to Shahid Kapoor, was impressively frazzled in Majid Majidi’s Beyond the Clouds. He has less to do in Dhadak but there’s a soulfulness to him that’s at odds with Hindi cinema’s current penchant for bratty, hyperactive onscreen male personas. Janhvi, daughter of the late Sridevi, is a more perplexing proposition—she doesn’t appear uncomfortable in front of the camera, but there’s a blankness that won’t leave her even when she’s emoting furiously. A little guidance might have helped; when she gulps “Kyun kiya mujh se pyaar (Why did you fall in love with me)?” her eyebrows do a little dance—an understandable, if distracting, tic, and an unexpected reminder of her mother, who could work miracles with a raised brow.

Sairat showed that it was possible to highlight caste in a bells-and-whistles commercial film, something Kaala did even more explicitly this year. By replicating the narrative but tossing in caste almost as an afterthought, Dhadak shows the limitations of mainstream Hindi cinema.

This review appeared in Mint.

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