Karamveer Singh (Ayushmann Khurrana) is a man who can’t not be a woman. As a kid, he played – or was rather forced to play – Sita in local Ramlilas (and Radha in Kishan Leela). In a small town like Mathura, that became part of his identity. In a world ruled – and destroyed – by men, Karam is a curious outlier. He’s also had no female figures in his life: his mother died when he was young; he has no sister, either. Most Bollywood films spend an inordinate amount of time worshipping the machismo of their heroes. But Dream Girl, directed by Raaj Shaandilyaa, is cut from a different fabric; it unfolds as a quest for masculinity – one that is not vicious or entitled but sensitive and inwards, the kind of divine intervention boys need before becoming men.
Karam grows up to become a directionless, unemployed man. His father (Anu Kapoor) is reeling under loans and Karam needs to do something about it. Opportunity beckons in the form a call centre job, where he, impersonating a woman, has to chat up random strangers. Karam is good at his job; the money is good, too. But in the process, he must answer a question that torments many young Indians: what good is success if it demands a sacrifice of identity?
All of this may make Dream Girl sound like a solemn fare. Far from it. It is clear, quite early, that its foremost pursuit is comedy. Everything else – the romantic subplot, the familial and friendly bonds, even social commentary – is just a ruse. And in that respect, Dream Girl scores. The movie essentially unfolds as a series of gags – clever, self-aware, silly – propelling the plot. The dialogues are another high point: zippy, funny, sharp, revelling in wordplay.
Shaandilyaa is also helped by his cast: Vijay Raaz, playing a shayari-spouting constable, is so in the groove that he deserves another (very silly) movie of his own. Kapoor – as the endearing, harried father – is on home turf. Abhishek Banerjee, who was so impressive in Stree, plays a similar role here and is as effective. But the movie belongs to – and is elevated by – its leading man, Khurrana.
Khurrana, in many aspects, has been a remarkable find of this decade. He does not just select fascinating scripts but several films of his have wrestled with the notions of straight-jacketed masculinity. Consider some of his notable roles: Vicky Donor (2012), his debut, where he played a sperm donor; Dum Laga Ke Haisha (2015), a husband confronting his prejudices about beauty; Shubh Mangal Saavdhan (2017), a young man struggling with erectile dysfunction. These kinds of roles – making men introspect – were largely missing from Hindi cinema. Khurrana came and made the whole Delhi-dudebro shtick an art-form. He’s very pleasant in Dream Girl too, infusing ample humour and gravitas in this role.
Even though Dream Girl unfolds as a comedy, its higher aspirations – of being a social drama (much like Tumhari Sulu (2017), Stree (2018), or Badhaai Ho (2018)) – are evident. The thing is, Shaandilyaa may be funny, but he isn’t that smart. If you take away humour from this movie, you’re left with sloppiness aplenty.
Some plot turns are so painfully contrived – and built on incredible coincidences – that you can do nothing but eye-roll. A character in the movie, Roma (Nidhi Bisht), “becomes” a lesbian after three break-ups (the stretch in that motivation is so remarkable that it should consider competing in gymnastics). She also sings in a man’s voice at one point in the movie (no, I’m not making that up). Then the movie relentlessly fat shames a peripheral character. There’s one extended gag centred on Muslims which, even though well-intentioned, feels odd.
Shaandilyaa’s filmography doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence either. He wrote the screenplay and dialogues of the 2017 rape-revenge drama Bhoomi, which was easily the worst film of the year. He’s written numerous scripts for mediocre comedians such as Krishna Abhishek, Sudesh Lehri, and Kapil Sharma. It’s not then surprising that whenever the movie tries to leap at profundity, the results are awkward. It’s also predictable in that regard. You know that a film like this will end with a sanctimonious monologue – a cop-out so common to mainstream Bollywood. Dream Girl lives up to that disappointment. And yet, the sight of a decked-up Khurrana, in a saree, is quite striking, too – a pity that the film couldn’t match the power of its actor.