Dir. Habib Faisal
If Daawat-e-Ishq has a lesson for me, it is not a lesson about the grim injustice of dowry practices. Rather, it's that there is no substitute for seeing a film for myself before I judge it. At the time of the film's release, a few reviews critiqued portions of its script as regressive and problematic, and damned the rest as dull and flavorless. So I came to the movie with low expectations. But when I finally watched it, I was pleasantly surprised. More than that, it's grown in my mind in the weeks since. It is not a complicated movie, but it is a sweet and delightful one.
For sure, there are problems with the script, in which Gullu (Parineeti Chopra) engineers a scheme to entrap Tariq (Aditya Roy Kapoor) in marriage, and then prosecute him and his family under Sec. 498A, the anti-dowry provision of the Indian Penal Code. Gullu expects to extort a fat settlement in exchange for dropping the charges. As a premise for a romance, this is problematic in all kinds of ways. Not least, it risks trivializing the real injustice of extortionate dowry practices from which Sec. 498A exists to protect women. And it furthers the stereotype of woman as predatory gold-digger, not to be trusted.
And even the few men in the movie whom the script allows to speak out against dowry practices seem to miss the point. Tariq complains that he is not a piece of meat to be auctioned by his parents to the highest bidder; these words are echoed later by another young man in what is meant to be the movie's heartwarming epilogue. But Sec. 498A does not exist to protect men from objectification; its target is the devaluation of women. Dowry says that a family accepting another family's daughter is taking on a burden, worthy of compensation, even though they can expect to press that daughter into service as babymaker and maidservant. No family ever killed a boy child to avoid participating in the tradition of dowry. Tariq's indignation notwithstanding, it is not the commodification of men that makes dowry practices immoral. Daawat-e-Ishq's approach weakly sidesteps this reality, perhaps out of fear of making audiences uncomfortable with too radical a message.
Nor does the script make very clear why Gullu's father Abdul Qadir (Anupam Kher) goes along with Gullu's complex and fraudulent plan. One can surmise that his capitulation stems from an indulgent, paternal love, the sort that would drive him to do anything to keep his little girl happy. This is the implication, but we are left to fill in a lot of blanks on our own to get there. The only reason it works is that Anupam Kher gives one of his more effective performances, one that delicately walks the line between the more clownish comedic tendencies he sometimes shows in mainstream roles, and the sublter, more layered performances we know from films across his career, from Pestonjee to Khosla ka Ghosla.
So with all this weighing it down, I've puzzled to understand why Daawat-e-Ishq works for me as well as it does. A certain amount is attributable to old-fashioned star charisma. I fall harder for Parineeti Chopra with each film of hers I see; the relatable mix of brashness and vulnerability that she brings to the screen is irresistible. And Aditya Roy Kapoor comports himself well, too; he lands in a very charming space of confidence without the arrogance that one often sees in handsome young heroes. Tariq believes that if Gullu spends a few days with him she will fall for him, but he is also willing to let her go if that bet turns out to be wrong - no stalking, no no-means-yes, just a healthy confidence in who he is and what he has to offer. He has an unpolished kind of appeal, goofy but genuine.
In short, Daawat-e-Ishq has the basic ingredient without which there can be no romance story: The characters are likable and one really does want to see them get together. As Gullu steams her way through her scheme, there are moments when her confidence wavers, when her conscience kicks in; but instead of aborting the scheme and facing the consequences, she draws herself up and makes the terrible decision to stay the course. And I care about this, because I like Gullu enough to hate seeing her make stupid, stupid mistakes. Gullu is a well-executed character because she undergoes some real growing pains over the course of the film. What she does to Tariq is reprehensible; unlike other turnabout-revenge type stories (think Ladies vs Ricky Bahl), a fundamental flaw in Gullu's scheme is that Tariq himself is an innocent victim, not a jerk who deserves comeuppance. The long, slow arc by which Gullu comes to realize this for herself is frustrating, but it is also, ultimately, satisfying.
There's one more thing that has stuck with me about Daawat-e-Ishq: its title song, a raucous and delightful rocked-up qawwali in which Tariq bets that the food he serves up in the restaurant he owns (sadly we never get to see any cooking in the film) can win Gullu's heart. What can I say - a hero trying to seduce a heroine with food is super adorable. It is the food-is-love metaphor made concrete, and I can't help but melt into smiles when Gullu tastes the kheer and sings "Haan, hai qubool ye humne maana..." I haven't been able to stop listening to or even watching this song. When I watched the movie I was having a truly gruesome day, and this song cut through some of the worst feelings I've had in a while and made me grin like a dope. It's an epitome of much of what I love about Hindi films. That alone is enough to make Daawat-e-Ishq, despite its missteps, a lasting sentimental favorite.