Dir. Maneesh Sharma
It is difficult to gauge the success of a movie if you cannot discern what it set out to do. Shuddh Desi Romance ("proper Indian romance") might want to be yet another manchild-finds-maturity-through-love tale. It might be aiming for tart, frank commentary on modern - read, sexual - relationships between young people And it might be, as its title suggests, a straight-up romance. The muddle of all these narrative approaches yields a movie that is, unfortunately, confused and unenengaging.
Moreover, Shuddh Desi Romance commits the same error as Wake Up Sid - it teases us with an interesting, agentive female character, and then expends most of its time and focus on the far less compelling young man in the story. Gayatri (Parineeti Chopra) lives alone, supports herself, and forms (and ends) relationships on her own terms. Raghu (Sushant Singh Rajput) is mostly a horny dumbass; reasonable minds can perhaps differ on how cute and charming a horny dumbass is as a filmi hero - the industry sure thinks audiences love them - but I've had more than my fill of the archetype, thanks very much.
Trudging out yet another clueless manchild instead of developing an actual character is the least of Shuddh Desi Romance's missteps, though. When Gayatri leaves Raghu's life for a while, the narrative remains with Raghu. Eventually, of course, Gayatri returns to the story - but we aren't shown what she does during that time. How much stronger this movie would have been, had it followed the trajectories of both characters. Each of them begins with a warped view of love - Raghu's simplistic and idealized, Gayatri's damaged and cynical. Shuddh Desi Romance at least attempts to show how Raghu's attitude toward love changes. (At least, that is a reasonable guess at what it's getting at with his lurching from relationship to relationship. None of the narrative is especially coherent.) The film should have examined Gayatri too, her backstory, and the time during her absence. Instead, it tries sleight-of-hand, substituting the depiction of sexual liberation for actual narrative substance. Gayatri doesn't need a personality - she's a totemic Modern Girl. You can almost hear the filmmakers congratulating themselves.
With this focus on Raghu, this film once again turns a romance story into a story about a boy - and he is a boy with no depth at all. His flailing about with Tara (Vaani Kapoor), the inexplicable girlfriend at the other vertex of the inevitable triangle, ranges from dull to painful to watch. Raghu rebounds, and then rebounds from his rebounds, all the while sure that this time he's really In Love (TM). Tara's motivations are even less clear. At first she seeks revenge against Raghu for jilting her early in the film, but then she falls for him for real. Tell me you've never heard that trope before - and tell me it makes any sense at all. As is so often the case in films like this, one is left to wonder what not just one but two seemingly intelligent and free-thinking woman see in this overgrown twelve-year-old.
Shuddh Desi Romance isn't all bad. Despite the characters' unusual, and weird and unexplained, disconnect from any friends or family, both Gayatri and Raghu have a father figure in the jolly Goyal (Rishi Kapoor). Kapoor continues to have the time of his life in supporting roles like Goyal, and it is a pleasure to watch him laugh and chew scenery and give bemused, affectionate advice to the film's confused principals. There is also occasionally trenchant commentary on love and heartbreak, delivered by the characters in fourth-wall-breaking sessions chatting with the camera, in the style of reality-show redux. These are cute, and together with Kapoor's scenes, are Shuddh Desi Romance at its best. There are also some sweepingly beautiful shots of Jaipur, the film's unusual setting. The story as a whole, though, is a slapdash, jumbled treatment. The tale's shallowness would be forgivable if it were one of several vignettes in an ensemble movie like Salaam-e-ishq. On its own, though, there is not enough coherence to convey any depth of meaning, and not enough substance to satisfy.