Dum Laga Ke Haisha is so simple that it never gives you a single moment of unpredictability, writes Raja Sen.
There’s a lot to be said for the 1990s, and Kumar Sanu doesn’t make the list.
Not only is it hard to look past the impossibly nasal voice, he’s also a singer who flourished at a time when Hindi film music was actively choking the Hindi film, forcing formulaic ditties into movies made for the sake of holding them.
Looking back from here, he had a few good ballads, but that’s it.
And yet, 20 years ago, the very idea of a young man -- in this case an audio-cassette retailer -- falling in love with a singer’s voice automatically meant it could only possibly be for Sanu, who unquestionably ruled many a male heart.
Our Haridwari audio-cassette shopkeeper is named Prem, a fact that must have thrilled him to bits when Hum Aapke Hain Koun...? released.
We meet Prem a year after that in 1995, a barely-educated good-for-nothing who is being shovelled into a financially convenient marriage.
His bride, Sandhya, is a sharp and well-educated girl with ambitions of being a teacher. She’s fat, he’s foul-tempered, and they have nothing at all in common.
And so it goes, a truly simple story. So simple, in fact, that Dum Laga Ke Haisha never gives you a single moment of unpredictability. It’s a two-hour film, and yet drags its feet enough to feel long and stretched. There are superb actors performing a sweet script, but after a while all you have is flavour. And we have tasted it before.
Or something like it, anyway.
The fascinating Haridwar -- its tongues, its street-side sass, its love for the metaphor, its intricate signboard-painting -- might not itself have been the sight of many a recent rom-com, but several approximations have. From Bombay to Banaras, we know flavour.
Sharat Katariya’s film, however, is beautifully seasoned, with utterly fabulous detailing: a community wedding featuring rows and rows of scarlet brides dressed like thalis at a Jagran; a morse-code like frugal missed-call based moneysaver (two-rings-for-this, one-ring-for-this); pastries handed out instead of birthday cake, and -- most critically -- the shakha Prem attends.
The Shakha, the local branch of the right-wing nuts, is a fascist group, the type of thing Roderick Spode ran in Wodehouse’s The Code Of The Woosters: Spode’s boys where called The Black Shorts, and included the measurement of male knees in its manifesto. Prem is the member of that very kind of wooly-headed organisation where grown men walk around in half-pants, and that’s what, we assume, shall define him somewhat.
Yet, the potentially groundbreaking role of the Shakha starts with light humour and is eventually completely ignored. It’s the same problem throughout the film: Katariya assembles a fascinating ensemble of quirky characters but worries more about the 1990s feel and their lovely turn of phrase -- “in a hurry to get your name on the in-law’s ration card?”, laughs a teasing aunt -- as opposed to where the character is going.
The actors make it work, though.
Ayushmann Khurrana is great, giving his mostly pathetic character a sort of sullen, defiant dignity, and biting into the role rather sportingly.
The new girl Bhumi Pednekar has a delightful smile, and is -- part sassy, in part pitiful, part heroic -- mostly impressively real, creating a genuine character.
Sanjay Mishra and Seema Pahwa from Ankhon Dekhi show up and shine here too, as does the excellent Sheeba Chaddha as the boy’s tyrannical aunt.
A word for the music: Anu Malik’s soundtrack is hugely enjoyable, retro in an affectionately genuine way -- with Moh Moh, a tender, aching song written by Varun Grover, being the highlight -- but there is one massive problem: Kumar Sanu’s truly distinctive voice doesn’t sound the same anymore. Too many digital bells and whistles are protooling it to sound better and better; but the nose is gone.
Sadhana Sargam may as well be Shreya Ghoshal. Wherein the heart?
It’s not easy, making a Dum Laga Ke Haisha. A film with an overweight heroine that is, to a large extent, about that heroine’s weight, requires a finely sensitive balance. And while the film is perched loyally and well-intentionedly on Sandhya’s side, it still uses words about weight as insults -- moti (fatty), saand (buffalo) -- and also, sadly, leans on them for laughs.
For a second at the very end, I felt the film was about to flip predictability literally upside down and do something highly eventful, but the filmmakers backed out of it, happy with how far they've gone. That’s the regrettable bit, even though applause must go Yash Raj’s way as far as breaking the mould -- I just wish they wouldn’t smugly keep pointing at it.
My other issue is with romance itself. The film dawdles so frequently on neighbourhood chatter and well-etched details that both leading man and leading lady get no chance to conjure up chemistry, they just get tired of fighting instead.
Instead of making them connect, the film applauds the arranged-marriage theory of how being nice and resigned is the key to love. Settle, settle, settle.
And so may you, for this sweet, underachieving little film.