I wasn’t optimistic about Dum Laga Ke Haisha. Hindi films don’t have the best track record with how overweight characters are depicted, and it is produced by Aditya Chopra who is not the most progressive when it comes to portraying gender roles. Luckily director Sharat Katariya knows what he is about and this is a poignant and sometimes sweet story about an arranged marriage, grown-ups growing up, inter-generational issues and so much more.
It’s 1995, Haridwar, and conditions are shabbily picturesque. Prem (Ayushman Khurrana) is an under-achiever and high school dropout, working in the family audio-cassette shop. I have to say that I liked the idea of being able to order a bespoke mix tape, but I could see his business was likely to be in trouble as technology passed them by. Prem is happy sitting in the dusty shop listening to Kumar Sanu songs and generally passing the time with minimal effort. His dad pressures him into marrying, and so he is introduced to Sandhya (Bhumi Pednekar). She is a larger figured girl, not to Prem’s taste at all. But the family say she is educated and can get a decent job teaching and bring some much needed money in. Sandhya likes the look of Prem but he is disgusted by her. He is That Guy ; the one who has little to recommend him but still demands a stick insect super model astronaut chef wife with boob implants as his due. Sandhya accepts the match with warmth and an open heart, assuming Prem is doing likewise.
Her wedding is a joyful day and the start of her new life, but Prem sees it as an ending of his hopes. He refuses to touch Sandhya and her mum tells her it’s her duty to satisfy him. She is surrounded by people who don’t try to understand her and don’t care that they hurt her feelings. His family think she is a snob and her family are worried they will send her back. Sandhya is sympathetic but not perfect. She is a little bit of a snob and she does flaunt her education at times, but she is not mean spirited and she tries so hard to adjust to her new family and life. Prem seems to delight in every rebuff and insult as vindication of his own disregard for Sandhya.
Sandhya leaves Prem after she overhears him say something particularly vile and confronts him about his lack of respect for her. Sandhya’s family greet her with dismay and recite a litany of things she should have done better and why she was lucky to have any husband at all. She toughs it out but once she is behind closed doors she cries quietly with grief and disappointment. I got the feeling her parents only educated her because they knew she would not be coasting through life on looks alone. But Sandhya won’t be denied her chance at a good life, respect, and affection. If marriage to Prem isn’t working, she will end the marriage and move on. How many times have I hoped a filmi heroine would do just that?
While Prem is whiny and Sandhya is bolshie they do have a bit in common, and that makes it sad when the marriage falters. They both struggle with being among the first generation in their respective families to use education to have a shot at moving up in life, and there is a kind of class tension between them and their parents as a result. They’re both a little low on self-esteem and are practised at deflecting criticism. The biggest difference is that Sandhya will put on a bold front and go for it, but Prem will get bogged down in his sense of hopelessness. There is a moment when Prem watches Sandhya stride towards a job interview and his expression is both impressed and bemused, as if he can’t quite understand how she does it. When they are forced to live under the same roof pending the divorce hearing, the façade drops and they start see each other as individuals. Sandhya understood Prem was unhappy with himself but felt powerless to change things or to articulate his feelings to his parents, so he just felt more trapped and angry. He started to see that her generous spirit that stopped her from becoming bitter and kept her moving towards a better future. Both actors deliver excellent characterisations and they played well off each other. I take it as a mark of Khurrana’s excellent acting that I wanted to throw Prem into the river. Bhumi Pednekar is lovely and conveyed all the hope and giddiness of a newlywed and the firm determination Sandhya had to not just settle.
My subtitles helpfully declared the movie title is “Heave-Ho, Carry That Load”. I was so pleased that the only fat jokes are made by people clearly shown to be unpleasant or just thoughtless and Sandhya is never required to endorse their views. The device of a wife carrying competition is this film’s stand in for other more standard filmi heroic physical challenges. It also serves as a heavy handed metaphor for relationships – do you drag the other person along in your wake as Nirmal does, or do you take turns to give and take, to take the lead or fall back to support each other, as Prem and Sandhya eventually do?
The relationships with family and between family members add richness to the story. Sanjay Mishra is Prem’s father, and a look at future Prem unless someone sorts him out; permanently aggrieved, always hoping someone else will fixthings. Alka Amin as Prem’s mum and Seema Pahwa as Sandhya’s ma are vintage filmi mothers, throwing guilt trips and shoving food at people in equal measure. I like that despite the heated conversation over the future of their shop, when Prem’s Mum insists they have a piece of her birthday cake everyone does – using it to gesticulate or shouting with mouths full. But she is the one who finally insists Prem do the race. Aunty Naintara ( Sheeba Chaddha) rounds out the household and makes sure that Sandhya never forgets how lucky she is to have a husband.
Prem is an idiot, but Sandhya is the one to give him the reality check he needs and the motivation and support he lacks. She wants to be married and wants a good life with a partner who loves and respects her and Prem can be that man if he grows up. I ended up thinking that they had done just enough of the real talk to get their relationship on a much healthier track. And if things went wrong, Sandhya already had a good lawyer!
And as if all the subtle colours, beautiful sets, and gorgeous locations were not enough, the film ends on this delightfully retro and colourful Anu Malik number that celebrates love and cheesy choreography.
If you want to see layered and realistic relationships and an unconventionally attractive cast, see this film! 4 stars!