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Film

'Doctor G' Shows the ‘Liberal Man’ a Mirror and It’s Not a Comforting Picture

Anubhuti Kashyap reverts Hindi cinema’s male gaze and remains in control of her film.

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Anubhuti Kashyap’s Doctor G opens with a Kabir Singh joke. Uday (Ayushmann Khurrana) tells his friend Chaddi (Abhay Mishra) that he’s a liberal man — a simple man — that he isn’t possessive like Shahid Kapoor’s character. It doesn’t bother him that his girlfriend spends a lot of time with her male friend. As his monologue intensifies, the opener unfolds as a dual joke: that Uday is anything but liberal (he’s insecure and petty: call him Kabir Singh Lite) and, like Kabir Singh, a disinterested doctor.

Kashyap examines the first thought throughout her debut: the peculiar psychology of an Indian man who is so convinced he’s the Good Guy that he never bothered to check. This entitlement and confidence produces a pitiable specimen: a person disconnected from his own story — a serial killer from a slasher flick romancing in the Swiss Alps.

It exposes other hypocrisies hiding in plain sight. Consider for instance the ‘focused’ ambition of young Indian men. Finishing his MBBS, Uday fixates on pursuing an MD in “ortho” (orthopaedics). But his low rank makes him qualified for “gynae” (gynaecology). He bristles at this insult. How can a man, after all, study gynae? Don’t women play badminton, as he tells his friend, and men play cricket? The movie’s conceit packs two solid implications: the hidebound Indian society revering tradition, and students using higher education, under the garb of intellectual inquiry, to fit into a preordained societal hierarchy.

These scenes snapped me back to my school days. I knew a disproportionate majority of students (including me) who obsessed over engineering degrees in computer science or electronics and communication. No one mentioned civil, mechanical, o electrical. Why were we (and our parents) so ‘passionate’ about those two fields? It had nothing to do with education; they attracted the most lucrative salaries. We weren’t brave enough to admit it though. We all reeled off our rehearsed intellectual reasons.

Uday may not be as money-minded, but he has the same anatomy. He, too, has a weepy reason — an ‘inspirational’ reason — to study ortho. But let alone ortho, he’s not interested in anything. He’s a hollow guy, a halka guy. Someone who lives in a room of thousand mirrors and yet has never seen himself. Someone whose duplicity, self-deception and casual cruelty can be rolled in two simple words: nice guy.

Kashyap is confident that she can illuminate Uday’s faults through a small scene. Early in the film, he talks about his ex-girlfriend in a derogatory manner in front of his idol, Ashok (Indraneil Sengupta), an orthopaedic doctor. Ashok, a polite man otherwise, joins Uday. Not too far from them is a schoolgirl, Kavya (Ayesha Kaduskar), with whom the married Ashok is having an affair. Uday and Ashok’s insults amplify; Kavya looks uncomfortable. She doesn’t utter a word though — we just get two quick shots. Enough to establish character(s) and plant a Chekhovian gun.

Such an approach in commercial Hindi cinema — where the filmmaker underscores the hero’s flaws yet doesn’t make him a villain — is rare. Because Bollywood usually treat its men, like how mothers dote on their raja betas: cheering, praising, and defending anything they do, even if the available evidence points to an unsavoury version. This sync between the film’s protagonist and thesis is even more remarkable, as Doctor G is a comedy.

This movie also knows how to have fun, while foregrounding the big picture. When Uday joins the gynaecology department in a Bhopal college, he’s ragged by his peers and seniors, all of them women — the metaphorical punishment has turned literal. The dialogues (by Sumit Saxena) sound natural and relaxed, resembling the medical college lingo. Students discuss “ortho”, “gynae”, and “PMT” — no one stops to explain or contextualise.

Also read: ‘Chhello Show’: A Boy’s Nostalgic Look at Celluloid Cinema That Remains at the Surface Level

Doctor G also nails the three elements central to an entertaining drama: tonal variations, flow and surprise. It segues from comedy to commentary to pathos with enjoyable ease. It employs opportune narrative sleights of hand. Just when you think you’ve got the movie, it turns back and bolts ahead.

The female lead, Rakul Preet Singh, is a gynaecologist named Fatima, Uday’s senior who is about to get engaged. Bollywood’s law of attraction dictates that two famous actors, despite their characters’ circumstances in the movie, will end up together. Doctor G lulls us into that expectation, too: Uday and Fatima hang out, share jokes, kiss. Not again, I whined in my head. But then, Fatima tells him that it was a mistake and they should just remain friends. When Uday throws a hissy fit, she echoes his ex’s words: “Tumhein ladkiyon ki baat sunai nahin deti [ you don’t listen to women].”

Some scenes meld surprise and social commentary. When Uday fails to perform a basic test and then overcompensates by helping a woman deliver in a hospital corridor, his batchmates laud him. The department head, Nandini (Shefali Shah — excellent as always), disrupts the celebration, asking Uday, in essence, if he expects a cookie for just doing his job? But Nandini is not a villain, not even close; she just offers an alternate view, pointing towards a multi-tiered story.

Films like Doctor G often succumb to the ‘curse of the second half’. They sweat the initial portion: creating fascinating characters, introducing pressing conflicts, and building a convincing world. But they stretch and sprain themselves, trying to inject needless drama. Juggling larger than life and lifelike qualities, they fumble their own stories. I feared something similar here, because an Ayushmann Khurrana movie has become a template. It’s produced a few enjoyable dramas, but some of its devices have become too obvious: progressive themes drowning out a story, a sweeping event solving a conflict, a hero launching into a sanctimonious climactic monologue.

Even though the film keeps escalating tension through a new subplot centred on Kavya and Ashok, it doesn’t lean on weak crutches. Kashyap knows her film; she’s in control. So, when Uday and Kavya play badminton, we remember an early scene. When the Chekhovian gun fires, it makes us feel cathartic. Fatima clings to her conviction, prodding him to change. Uday keeps hearing that he needs to “lose the male touch”, but it’s only towards the end, he listens to it. Bollywood, too, has been hijacked by the “male touch” for way too long. Kashyap’s assured debut tells us what we’ve lost, and what we hope to gain.