दम लगाके हईशा
Dir. Sharat Katariya
Let me start with what I do like about Dum Laga Ke Haisha: its lead woman, Sandhya (Bhumi Pednekar). I can think of vanishingly few characters like this one, not just in Hindi films but in western popular narratives as well. Sandhya is a smart, with a modest but sincere ambition to be a schoolteacher. She is confident, giving as good she gets when her family or her in-laws give her a hard time. (One friend on Twitter taught me the expression "muh-tod type" to describe her.) And she is kind and patient, doing all she can to give her marriage to Prem (Ayushmann Khurana) a fair chance to succeed.
She is also overweight. And the way Dum Laga Ke Haisha handles Sandhya's weight is exceptional. It doesn't pretend she's not overweight - it doesn't pretend that Sandhya's lived experience as a woman in a chubby body is the same as any typical slim heroine's. But the film doesn't judge her for it, either. When characters comment about her weight, the comments serve to show the smallness of the character, not to get the audience laughing at the fat girl. Jokes about her body are offered as mean, not as funny. And, in a very true-to-life that many overweight women can identify with, Sandhya both steels herself against them and is wounded by them.
Physical type aside, Sandhya shows an impressive maturity and commitment in her approach to life, while never forgetting that she is entitled to get something out of the bargain. Dum Laga Ke Haisha is set in the mid-90s, a time when Hindi films were often still peppered with dialogue about how suffering and sacrifice is a woman's lot (this came up in 1994's Anjaam, for example). But Sandhya isn't having any of that. She wants to do what is right, which in her world is to be a good wife, supporting her husband and keeping him happy. But she refuses to subsume her entire self, to subjugate any desires and needs of her own, for the sake of the bharatiya-nari ideal. She is committed to making a serious effort at this. She tries more than one tack to make her marriage work, but she's only willing to beat her head against a wall for so long. When her efforts go unrewarded - and worse, when Prem outright insults her for them - Sandhya shifts her focus to taking care of herself, to finding a new life path without Prem. She even initiates divorce proceedings, an astonishingly bold move in a conservative community. The result is of all of this is that Sandhya is a terrific character, remarkably portrayed. She is real, likable, and flawed (that tongue can be a bit sharper than is called for). It is so easy to get behind Sandhya, to be invested in her and to care what happens to her.
And because I care what happens to Sandhya, Dum Laga Ke Haisha fails for me as a romance. I just can't stand to see her saddled with Prem, as dour, unappreciative a jerk as ever was the hero of a movie.* Crumpling spinelessly under pressure from his parents, Prem marries Sandhya early in the film, and then sulks like an angry five-year-old through all her game efforts to connect with him. In the first two thirds of the movie, Prem insults Sandhya, and alienates his family, his friends, and even his mentor. All of them offer him advice in the direction of pulling up his big-boy chaddees and acting like a decent adult. But Prem is too self-absorbed to do that kind of work, and too shallow; his main objection to Sandhya (whom he did consent to marry, after all) is that she's fat. He is an all-around odious and unpleasant person.
When I complained of this on Twitter, someone asked, is it necessary to like the main characters to like a movie? The answer depends strongly upon the movie. Satirical comedies are often populated by awful people, and many a gangster movie centers on an anti-hero. But for a romance, likable principals are an absolute necessity. In a romance, the conclusion is foregone: one way or the other, the couple will end up together. The pleasure of a romance lies not in the whether but in the how; the journey is everything. So that journey had better be in the company of people you enjoy spending time with. And, of course, you have to want the couple to get together. If you can't root for the success of the pairing, watching a romance is an irritation, not a diversion.
With its petulant, obnoxious hero and a heroine who deserves far, far better, Dum Laga Ke Haisha becomes a frustrating ride. And even if Prem does undergo some character development - which he arguably does, though I'll have more to say below about the facile device that demonstrates this - it weights the dynamic part of the story toward Prem, when Sandhya is the better and more interesting character to watch. An annoying brat realizes he's been an idiot, and a gutsy, interesting woman who was all ready to strike out on her own decides instead to forgive him for having been an annoying brat. That's just not an enormously satisfying story arc.
As for that device by which Prem finally proves his readiness to contribute some effort to his marriage: It's not so much that after avoiding cheap fat jokes, the film culminates in a contest in which Prem must literally hoist Sandhya's extra weight on his back. The movie handles that with some dignity and steers clear of body-shaming Sandhya right until the end. It's more that the symbolism of the wife-carrying contest itself gives me indigestion. I can't get behind the metaphoric notion that a woman is a dead-weight burden that her husband must bear. For Dum Laga Ke Haisha to use this, of all metaphors, to represent what Prem must do to shoulder the burdens of adulthood and contribute to his own marriage is discomfiting, not cute as the movie was going for. And it short-changes one of the most interesting and deserving heroines I have ever seen.
* Ayushmann Khurana might be making a career out of such characters; I had similar problems with Vicky Donor.