Badhaai Ho (2018)

The Kaushiks live in a cramped old apartment in a colony overflowing with other lower middle class families. Priyamvada (Neena Gupta) runs the household and her husband Jeetu (Gajraj Rao) is a ticket inspector on the railways and sometime poet. They have two sons, 20-something Nakul (Ayushmann Khurrana) and stroppy teenager Gular (Shardul Rana), and Jeetu’s overbearing mother (Surekha Sikri). After a particularly trying evening, tired of keeping the peace, Priyam retires to her room. Jeetu reads his latest poem to try and sooth her hurt feelings. The poetry, the stormy night, the emotion…one thing leads to another. And 19 weeks later, the Kaushiks find out Priyam is pregnant.

When people find out about the pregnancy, reactions are varied to put it mildly. The GP and his wife are supportive of Priyamvada but give Jeetu the side eye as though to say he should have been more careful. The boys are just horrified that their parents still have sex, and are embarrassed by their degenerate behaviour. The mother-in-law goes full harpy mode and criticises Priyamvada, saying she is no better than she ought to be. And the gossip mill goes in to overdrive as news spreads.

Jeetu tells Priyamvada he’d prefer she had an abortion, but she won’t contemplate that option. He gently tries to make her see the downside, but says finally it’s her body so it should be her decision. Good man, Jeetu. I really enjoyed seeing an older couple as the focus of the story, and Neena Gupta and Gajraj Rao are wonderful. They are both conditioned to defer to their elders and maintain the peace. She looks elegantly middle aged, her face showing gentle lines and character. He is sweetly reticent, all business and stingy as hell on the surface but secretly romantic.

I loved a scene at a family wedding where he manoeuvred his way to be close to her in a photo, his face alight with booze and proud affection. The female relatives and wedding guests are less happy with the pregnancy and make free with their remarks, tormenting mild-mannered Priyamvada. Neena Gupta was quietly compelling but easily switched to perfectly timed comedic beats. Seeing Jeetu and Priyam navigate their way through a life changing surprise, their relationship, and all the reactions was highly engaging without being overly dramatic. It was disappointing when the film shifted focus to Nakul and his girlfriend as their relationship is one you see in every other film. I liked seeing the often invisible people get their time front and centre.

In the midst of all the talk of reproductive rights and safe sex, the male characters’ idea of masculinity rarely strays from the often toxic manly man stereotypes. Jeetu is in demand as a fertility coach among his peers, asked to counsel a troublesome nephew who remains childless despite two marriages. The nephew is introduced dancing enthusiastically to a Sridevi hit song as onlookers make snide comments. Gular is considered to be fine once he has beaten up a bully and asserted his masculinity. Nakul made fun of an impotent friend and hides lest he be on the receiving end. His jokes are funny, in a mean spirited and rehearsed way, but it is kind of telling that his friends are really frenemies. The men seem less supportive and rarely get real in their conversations with each other. The women bitch and bicker but ultimately they seem to get that family is what it is and in the end all they may have is each other. And bingo.

Ayushmann is delightful as the sooky, moody manchild Nakul who is the centre of the universe. His timing in the dialogues and his physical reactions are just about perfection, and when Nakul isn’t brooding he has a goofy energy that lights up the screen. But Nakul is an entitled dick and everything is about him. Everything. And although I was happy to see some character growth, I grew tired of the perfection of reformed Nakul, Best Son Ever. Even when the baby is born, he makes it about him. I just never really got why the boys were so horrible. Shocked, sure. But feeling betrayed – why!?! When the film detoured over to focus on him and Renee, I did lose some interest. On the upside he and Sanya Malhotra are great together and also do some excellent eyebrow choreo in the big production number, Morni Banke, that closes the film. I love an all-in end titles extravaganza!

Sanya Malhotra is charming but Renee is a little under-written, a standard issue modern girl. I liked that she has a career and that she straight up called Nakul out on some things. But when her supposedly progressive mother, played by the elegant and considered Sheeba Chaddha, criticises the Kaushiks and Nakul fires back, Renee breaks up with him. It seemed a bit convenient for the plot given her previous behaviour, but I didn’t care so much about that relationship. She has appealing looks and energy, and was a good match for Ayushmann.

Jeetu’s mum likes an orderly world where people pay attention to god and their elders, but she might not be as backward as she seems. Surekha Sikri is over the top as cantankerous Dadi at first, but when restraint was needed she wound it back nicely. Dadi helped demonstrate the strong familial love and support that helped the Kaushiks get through everything. Mostly by demanding maximum forbearance from everyone around her.

I was so relieved that Priyamvada is not simply fodder for tacky jokes, despite the dreadful poster designs. Writer Akshat Ghildial and director Amit Ravindernath Sharma deliver humour, pathos, social critique and a warm respect and affection for most of their characters. I like a good slice of life middle class social comedy and this delivers in spades. A great cast, a smart screenplay, and beautifully immersive visuals make this a delight to watch.

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2 thoughts on “Badhaai Ho (2018)

  1. Temple, for all your criticisms, I have only one answer (the same one, actually) – you just haven’t seen a real-life Indian family! 🙂 Yes, the masculinity (or notions of it are toxic). Yes, the friends are really frenemies – actually, one friend. And Nakul is hitting back – hard.

    Why are the boys so angry? It’s the humiliation they’re forced to endure. And yes, it happens.
    Why did Sanya’s character break up with Nakul? Because he was more than rude to her mother. As she points out, it was a private conversation between them, and it was not as if she felt that way. I didn’t think of it as a contrivance – it is more of Nakul being Nakul. Everything is so raw to him that he hits out at everyone, hurting everyone, including his mother, his father, and his girlfriend.

    Oh, believe you me, they are real. Very real. This is middle class India. Entrenched in their patriarchal mores. Hence, Jeetu is celebrated for his ‘mardangi’ but Priyam is shamed ‘for wearing lipstick’.

    Guler is taught how to be more ‘manly’ – the number of boys who grew up hearing ‘how does *he* look?’ when they come back home after a fight, and are taught to ‘go back and teach him a lesson’ is too many to count.

    As for Sanya’s mother, I thought she raised some valid objections – progressive or not – and some of her biases come through. And so, the film asks, how progressive are we really when it comes to our own lives. I liked that while the film pointed all this out, the film itself didn’t judge any of these characters. There were no villains. Only flawed people who did love each other despite all the bickering.

    p.s. If you think that Daadi was over the top, boy, am I glad you never met my daadi! My father famously said of my two grandmothers: ‘Your naani loves everybody; she just loves some of them more than the others. My mother hates everybody. She just hates some people less at times than she does the others.’ 🙂

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    • Hi Anu 🙂

      It’s not that I don’t think many of these characters are real. In fact based on your dad’s description of your grandmothers, we may well be related! I just don’t like them. I was a lot younger than Nakul when I think I grasped that not everything was about me, and even more amazing – some things were none of my business. So all of his humiliation was a result of his own immaturity. Also with the age gap between Nakul and the younger son, I thought maybe he might remember that and realise it wasn’t the end of the world.
      I would have liked to see some more engagement with the risks and realities of the pregancy or the conversations that must have been happening about the future, less of the boys’ hissy fits. The male characters in the film never get into any meaningful conversation with each other, and brood without really introspecting, which is a pity for them and for the viewer.
      I more or less agree with you that the film didn’t judge people for their different views, and that was good. But I would have liked the film to show a bit more character growth for some of the supporting characters, especially the menfolk. It seemed the film was saying “all that ignorance and self-absorption is the way it is and that’s fine” so it was a kind of judgement in their favour.
      On the subject of Indian families, it’s funny because when my Indian and Sri Lankan friends here have been talking family with me and other anglo/European friends, there are far more similarities than you may expect. One riotous conversation included bursts of laughter as we all recounted the various household implements we had been hit with when we were small children (wooden spoons were big, back in the day). We ALL have ‘that’ aunty. And I was sent back into a match, injured, with the instruction from my captain to make sure I took a apecific opposition player out before I went off as it wouldn’t matter if I got suspended since I’d be off for the rest of the season anyway. Ah, casual violence and peer pressure. But you know, I grew out of it. And any further stories about our grandmothers will have to be taken off the blog!

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