Jeetendra Kaushik (Gajraj Rao) is a ticket collector in India railways. A father of two grown-up sons – one in 12th grade, old enough to steal condoms, and the other (Ayushmann Khurrana), working a nine-to-five job, old enough to get married – Jeetendra is inching close to the final stage of his life: one where he’s retired, a father-in-law and devoid of desire. But Badhaai Ho’s hero is silently bashing against the walls. Even at his age, he cares for his appearance, writes poetry and woos his wife with the candour of a teenager. And one day, the walls fall down: Jeetendra – once again – becomes a father. He’s no longer cheering from the sidelines; he’s become the game itself.
For most Indian children, the idea that their parents can have inner (and sexual) lives of their own feels unsettling and alien. (I, till the age of six, used to think that my parents were siblings.) We’re so used to seeing our parents with respect to ourselves – breadwinners, caregivers, moral compasses – that we forget that they’re just like us: ordinary people navigating the life’s many mundane confusions.
But in Amit Ravindernath Sharma’s Badhaai Ho, that realisation comes later, what precedes it is shame. When Jeetendra’s wife, Babli (Neena Gupta), gets pregnant, his first thought is abortion. Babli, even though as embarrassed as him, disagrees. Their elder son, Nakul (Khurrana), dating someone on the higher end of the class spectrum (Sanya Malhotra), is burdened by a shame bigger than his parents’. This sounds like a weighty conceit, but Sharma approaches it not with the tongs of drama but with the caress of comedy.
The film takes time to find its rhythm though. At the start, you experience a minor annoyance – that woefully common Bollywood malaise, often seen in comedies, called ‘acting for camera’, where characters mutter one-liners or talk to themselves, in scenes deliberately trying to fit into the mould of comedy, flourishes that seem more interested in impressing the audiences at the cost of the scenes’ context or the film’s milieu. But Badhaai Ho overcomes its initial jitters, finds its voice and, quite surprisingly, manages to circumvent another common pitfall: the curse of the second half.
Sharma, who made his debut with the Arjun Kapoor-starrer Tevar, is an impressive talent. And signs of that were evident in his first film, too, which, unfortunately, remembered more for its flaws than its merits, still gets a disproportionate amount of flak. Like Tevar, Badhaai Ho is often seen through a quiet heartfelt gaze – even amid largely comedic scenes, without the filmmaker making a big deal about it. So, in the middle of a wedding, Jeetendra sees a visibly pregnant Babli – wearing a jewellery, make-up and saree – with the nervousness of a young groom. A few scenes later, another family member, who hasn’t become a father even after two years of marriage, begins dancing on stage, to ‘Mere Hathon Mein Nau-Nau Chudiyan Hai’, with effeminate abandon, which young boys are regularly admonished to shun. Badhaai Ho then, at various levels, becomes a plea to shelve our middle-class shame.
What initially seems like a thin logline, more suited to a 20-minute short than a 125-minute feature, slowly acquires narrative momentum and depth. Sharma does this by intercutting an unconventional love story – between Jeetendra and Babli – with a subplot whose echoes we can recogonise and listen: the relationship between Nakul and Renee. For Khurrana, always an easy and assuring presence, this role – of a regular middle-class Delhi boy, at the edge of some crucial life lessons – must have felt like breakfast. And yet, he doesn’t seem jaded or take refuge in his old tropes. Malhotra, who till now has been the embodiment of a fireball in films such as Dangal and Pataakha, plays a more conventional role, easily infusing it with a refreshing lightness.
But the real revelation here is Rao. Mostly known for playing supporting parts, where he’s either a father or a constable, he, for the first time, gets to shoulder a film. And he plays the role of a man trapped amid various familial forces – a bitter mother, rude sons, a sympathetic yet assertive wife – with a lot of grace and humour. Rao’s hesitancy and diffidence, in several key scenes, is remarkable, so is his (and the film’s) understated feminism. Gupta, much familiar with this terrain, seamlessly makes this piece a whole, resolving conflicts and diffusing tension with few lines of dialogues.
Even the film’s sub-motif – the hierarchical class tension – is a quiet presence throughout. It, first subtly and then overtly, marks the interactions between Nakul and Renee’s mother (Sheeba Chaddha), and then elsewhere between Jeetendra and the people he’s hesitant to tip. Sharma also revels, for a bit, in the idiom of Hindi masala movie – Nakul making fun of his friends, his brother slapping a school bully – which are as entertaining as the film’s poignant moments. Which truly befits a film like Badhaai Ho: a dramedy that laughs with us, while telling us that shame is not something to be buried but embraced.