Nagraj Manjule’s second feature, Sairat, was a searing answer to systems that withhold and abuse power. One of them was Bollywood itself – an industry controlled by a few dynasts that have dictated the moral codes, aesthetics and politics of stories, especially love stories. A world steeped deep in privilege that is well familiar to us, not because of recognition but repetition. A world, confined to a few ethnic groups, where markers of identity are personal; a world that looks uniform because it derives its powers from exclusion.
Manjule, a Dalit, didn’t yearn to enter that gated community. He set up his own commune, on the edges of the Marathi film industry, and made a film that jolted Bollywood. That primarily happened because Sairat did something vital: it lured the audience through a popular genre, the romantic drama replete with songs and dance, and added layers of discomfiting social commentary to it; more importantly, the film made a lot of money – a language that Bollywood understands and respects. Manjule, as a result, achieved something remarkable with Sairat: he defeated Bollywood at its own game.
But instead of checking its excess, Bollywood tried to appropriate his film. The result then, Dhadak, an ‘adaptation’ of Manjule’s movie, isn’t a compliment but an insult to Sairat. Its leads – Ishaan Khatter (Shahid Kapoor’s half-brother) and Janhvi Kapoor (Sridevi’s daughter) – belong to film families, a tendency often implicitly critiqued by Manjule: both his films, Fandry and Sairat, featured newcomers in important roles. Sairat was local and personal, aware of the horrors of the caste system. Dhadak is a Karan Johar production, where caste conflict is a generic plot point, occasionally referenced – twice in total – to perfunctorily tick a list. Good adaptations add to the existing source; Dhadak robs Sairat of its innocence, magic, and anger. Its existence is an mélange of ironies: (an almost complete) erasure of caste in a movie based on the caste system; an endorsement of nepotism enabled by the very social structure challenged by Sairat.
Even on its own, as a movie independent of artistic and moral legacy, Dhadak struggles to find its authorial stamp. In the absence of penetrating questions about caste supremacy, the film resembles a regular romantic drama marked by parental opposition. The antagonist Ratan Singh (Ashutosh Rana), a powerful politician, also Parthavi’s (Kapoor) father, is a threatening, yet familiar, figure: someone who disapproves of his daughter’s romantic choice – the kind of father we’ve seen in countless Hindi films, from Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge to Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania (where that part was played by Rana himself, in a movie helmed by Shashank Khaitan, Dhadak’s director). Khaitan’s latest is clueless about how to locate itself; its inability to understand the world is only matched by its reluctance to assess itself.
But what’s worse, the film considers its myopia a default setting. It is not just unfortunate but also deeply disturbing that a film like Dhadak, centred on caste discrimination, reserves its scorn and ridicule for a harmless peripheral character. That target is Purshottam (Shridhar Watsar), a sidekick to Madhukar (Khattar), used as comic relief throughout the film. Purushottam is short, balding and stocky; someone who is awkward around girls, breaks into an inane dance in the middle of a class, gets picked on by his friends. There’s hardly a scene involving Purushottam that doesn’t needle and deflate him. Purushottam, in fact, isn’t a person but a punching bag. His dehumanisation is constant and relentless; he gets no say, he has no agency. If the caste system strips people of their dignity, silencing and oppressing them, then this is its cinematic equivalent.
Not that there are other elements redeeming this movie. Debuting with Dhadak, Kapoor is largely unconvincing, struggling to nail scenes that have modicum of emotional heft. Khatter, who was impressive in his debut, Beyond the Clouds, is a much better actor with an intriguing screen presence, but he too struggles in the film’s most dramatic moments. More crucially, Khaitan sees Khatter’s Madhukar as a formulaic happy-go-lucky-guy – the kind of roles played by Varun Dhawan in the director’s first two films – which exemplifies the lack of original writing plaguing Dhadak.
What this film doesn’t lack, though, is brand placements. There are shots plugging Haldiram’s, Khaitan fans, Just Dial, and Ujala detergent (crucially in a sequence detailing the couple’s poverty – trust Bollywood filmmakers to write love letters to capitalism anytime, anywhere). If Sairat felt like a lived-in experience, then Dhadak feels like an assembly-line product, existing solely to mint money. Nothing in this film feels personal or precious; there’s no sense of anything at stake. Everything seems overblown and generic, a byproduct of Juhu-Bandra bubble that suffocates and sustains Bollywood filmmakers.
Not many would have expected Khaitan and his cohorts to understand the inequities of the caste system, but you’d at least think they’d understand their own film, a sanitised, colour-corrected version of Sairat. No such luck, for this is a film that confuses revenge with ‘honour’ killing. So much ignorance and arrogance in a film seem baffling. This is what Sairat fought against, and this is where it falls short, for it was staking a hold in a world that was, and perhaps will always be, indifferent. Dhadak is everything Sairat warned us about – a crass celebration of privilege that projects itself to be socially conscious. Bollywood – 1, the fight for a more inclusive world – 0.