(From L to R) Ayushmann Khurrana, Chum Darang and Akshay Khanna
Sometimes, it takes a bit longer to discover movies, and then when you do, it stays with you. Badhaai Do is one of them. I watched it in the third week of its release and was struck by the elegance with which a queer story is told. As a one-line concept, it must have been stellar. A lesbian woman marries a gay man in a lavender marriage and the families stop harassing them about “settling down”. But the way each character, including their individual lovers, has been delineated is most unusual in Hindi cinema. Queer people tend to be over-sexualised, points out the film’s director Harshavardhan Kulkarni, who made the oddball Hunterrr (2015). One never sees a romantic relationship between two queer people, except perhaps in Onir’s My Brother…Nikhil (2005) or in recent series, such as The Fame Game. In the gentle close dance between Bhumi Pednekar’s character Sumi, and Rimjhim (played by newcomer Chum Darang) and in the silent gestures exchanged between Rajkummar Rao’s Shardul Thakur and a stunning Gulshan Devaiah’s Guru Narayan, Kulkarni has managed to assuage several lifetimes of hurt at being ignored, forgotten or simply closeted. The lingering knocking of legs, which Devaiah does so flirtatiously, and the touching of hands between Sumi and Rimjhim is framed in a way the heterosexual gaze is accustomed to. It is playful, romantic, sometimes cheeky, and often ironic. Some tropes are inverted with more than a dash of humour, like the rain sequence where we expect the boy and girl to behave like boys and girls—and have been around in Hindi cinema since the time of Aradhana (1969) when a dreamy Rajesh Khanna clasped a shivering Sharmila Tagore to his chest to the iconic song, ‘Roop Tera Mastana’. Kulkarni has made a queer family drama and by setting it in Dehradun, he has captured the bottled-up aspirations of many young people who feel stifled leading double lives. But he has done it without speeches or rhetoric. “I wanted to show when queer people come out of the closet, the closet gets bigger. And also that they don’t need validation from heterosexuals,” he says. Someone called it the Taare Zameen Par of the LGBTQIA community, he says, referring to the 2007 Aamir Khan movie that put the spotlight on specially abled children.
When Akshat Ghildiyal wrote Badhaai Ho (2018), Ayushmann Khurrana’s girlfriend was meant to be from the Northeast, entirely possible in Delhi’s vast community of northeastern students. It didn’t happen. This time, with Badhaai Do, he was more successful and Bhumi’s lover, a pathology lab assistant, is played by former Miss Asia World runner-up (2017), Chum Darang. The unintended consequence is that it opens up new markets. Badhaai Do is not only doing well commercially in Arunachal Pradesh but the film’s team was also felicitated by the state chief minister, the young Pema Khandu. Chum, a winner of several local and regional beauty pageants, is a well-known name in Arunachal, but Badhaai Do has made her a bigger star. She had auditioned for the role, one of several she had been doing, with little success. If she hadn’t cut it this time, Chum had promised herself she would return home and open a school. Here’s hoping Bollywood opens its heart and mind to this talented and fearless woman.
This month is a big one for diversity globally. While the first season of Shonda Rhimes’ Bridgerton (Netflix) put the spotlight on Blacks, the second season showcases India, with at least two major characters being played by British women of Indian origin, Simone Ashley (actually Simone Ashwini Pillai), who plays Kate Sharma, will bewitch Anthony, the Bridgerton heir, and Charithra Chandran, will play her equally feisty sister, Edwina. It’s not so wildly impossible. Though Bridgerton is set in the Regency period (1811 to 1820), there were quite a few Indian aristocrats in Victorian England (1837-1901), not the least of them being the Black Prince (a name the court gave Maharaja Duleep Singh in those tone-deaf times) and the woman he was supposed to marry, Princess Gouramma of Coorg. There are also at least two major ongoing series with big parts for Indian-origin Brits, the murder mystery Chloe with Akshay Khanna, and the wry This Is Going To Hurt with Ambika Mod playing a doctor with the National Health Service.