Ved Vyas Tripathi (Vicky Kaushal), or Bhajan Kumar as he’s popularly known in his hometown, Balrampur, for belting out bhajans (devotional numbers), has always known one thing for sure: he was born in the home of an upright Hindu priest. He knows he too will grow up to become a priest one day – since the family vocation, if you will, is panditai (priesthood). A funny flashback tells us he had to undergo his thread ceremony (which involves shaving one’s head) on the same day he’s been invited to his school crush’s birthday party. He even assumes responsibility of ‘saving’ women from Muslim men under the guise of the Anti-Romeo squad, a ruse to harass and bully them. Growing up in an overwhelming saffron household, one can almost imagine him sharing social media posts ending with “Proud to be a Hindu”.
So, what happens when someone casts a shadow on the only thing he’s ever been sure about?
A day after Panditji, Ved’s father (Kumud Mishra), leaves for his annual pilgrimage, a stranger comes to the Tripathi household. He bears a letter for Panditji that reveals Ved was born to a Muslim woman. By the time the Tripathis finish reading the letter, the stranger has left. Even if the family initially disregards the letter – given how it inspires a million questions at least – a seed of doubt is planted in Ved. As a young man taught to see Muslims in a particular light – going so far as to greet some Muslim acquaintances with Allah Hu Akbar – Ved is bamboozled. What happens when the identity you built your life around is taken away in an instant?
The Great Indian Family fits perfectly into the genre championed by Ayushmann Khurrana and Rajkummar Rao over the past decade. Given the fatigue about small-town social dramedies starring Khurrana and Rao, Kaushal feels like a good stand-in. Few actors can sell looking smitten better than him at the moment in Hindi cinema. Writer/Director Vijay Krishna Acharya surrounds Kaushal with familiar faces in such films – Kumud Mishra, Manoj Pahwa, Alka Amin, and Sadiya Siddiqui. The banter is fast and quirky, like one expects from these films.
One might be tempted to call Acharya’s film ‘brave’ for championing secularism, at a time when more than one divisive, hate-mongering film has found acceptance. However, it’s also worth noting that producers Yash Raj Films (and female lead, Manushi Chhillar) tried to ride the wave of Islamophobia with Samrat Prithviraj only last year, and failed spectacularly. Just like in her debut opposite Akshay Kumar, Chhillar is merely employed as a shoulder here – where the leading man can rest his chin when he feels sad. The film isn’t particularly deft with its satire, like when Ved invokes the words “surgical strike” before entering a Muslim locality – a meta slight at Kaushal’s own film, Uri: The Surgical Strike (2018). I can imagine a part of the audience taking the lines at face value and having a hearty laugh about it, rather than laughing at themselves.
The Great Indian Family is designed to be a showcase for Kaushal, who goes about the beats of comedy, dance, and melodrama with a light touch. Just watch him in the song ‘Saibaa’, where he appears to be walking on air. There’s an affecting moment between him and Mishra, right before the latter departs on his chaar-dham yatra, where the father-son appear to fight their emotionally-stunted selves to give each other a hug. It ends with Ved touching his father’s feet, like he’s always done.
Acharya’s film absolves Hindu vigilantes easily, which our leading man is shown to be in more than one scene. In a scene, Kaushal’s Ved is shown to be taking the mickey out of ordinary Muslim men on the street, a flashback supposed to draw out laughs – but the scene suddenly turns serious when the same men spot Ved and start chasing him. Another crassly conceived scene sees Ved turn up in green attire and kohl-eyes, as ‘revenge’ on his family. Kaushal plays Ved like a buffoon, who asks silly questions like “How do Muslims eat?” and feigns surprise at “Oh they also eat with their hands?”
I liked that the film’s climax hinges on a DNA test, involving blood being drawn to tell us whether a character is Hindu or Muslim. It felt like an interesting spin on Nana Patekar’s famous dialogue from Krantiveer (1994) – where he coaxes a fellow character to tell him the difference between Hindu and Muslim blood. The climactic monologue has shades of the PSAs from the Nehruvian 1950s – unsubtly including Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, and Parsis – as if Acharya was going through a checklist. But I was honestly happy with the way the film ended with the reformation of the narrow-minded traditionalists. Given the times we’re living in, at least we can watch this fantasy play out on a 70mm screen and strive towards it, even if we can’t have it in real life.