Ironic perhaps, but laughter is a great tool to highlight human misery. For proof of this, as we count down to Oscars 2017, look no further than Roberto Benigni’s Best Picture-nominated, Best Foreign Language Film-winning La Vita E Bella (Life Is Beautiful) from Oscars 1999, a tragi-comedy about a Jewish Italian man and his little son in a Nazi concentration camp. La Vita E Bella was effective because it fully understood the heartbreak behind its humour and it did not at any point trivialise the pain of its characters. It takes a genius to walk that line.
Not that there is any comparison between the two, but I thought of Life Is Beautiful several times as I watched writer-director Amit Roy’s Hindi-Punjabi film Running Shaadi, the story of a young man who starts a matrimonial website/facilitating agency for couples whose families are opposed to their relationships. When it is not meandering, Running Shaadi is funny in places. Before we weigh its cinematic merits and demerits though, the film deserves to be lambasted unequivocally for seeming to be blissfully unaware of the catastrophic consequences that often accompany inter-community romances in India.
Roy cannot be accused of trivialising the issue. He simply seems not to understand it. It is hard to say which is more inexcusable.
For a moment though, let us discuss Running Shaadi in a vacuum, completely removed from this particular socio-political context in which it has been made. Amit Sadh plays the film’s Bharose, a Bihari working in a clothing store in Punjab. The owner of the establishment relies heavily on him for his business and often for his personal affairs too.
The old man’s daughter – Nimmi played by Taapsee Pannu – considers Bharose a good friend, though not the lover he clearly wants to be. At some point in the story, Bharose decides to start runningshaadi.com. Religious differences, caste boundaries, class divides – whatever be the objection your parents have to your union, Bharose and his partner Cyberjeet (Arsh Bajwa) will get you married and try, if possible, to even win over Dad, Mum and the extended parivaar.
Like these parents, the filmmaker too is not bereft of prejudice. One of the film’s jokes is that Cyberjeet considers a thickly bespectacled, ordinary-looking Bengali youth not good enough for his pretty Punjabi girlfriend. She snaps at Cyber for his doubts, telling him that her Shonkhu (Sandip Ghosh) is the most intelligent man she knows. Predictably, the actress cast in this part has a markedly light complexion while Ghosh is dark-skinned. Whaddyaknow! The stereotype of fair-is-beautiful-and-dark-is-ugly meeting the stereotype of the cerebral Bengali and the good-looking Punjabi in a film that is supposedly opposed to bias? C’mon Amit Roy! Seriously?
Once Bharose’s business takes off, you guess of course that he too will need its services some day. He does. The rest of the film is devoted to the hero solving his own problem, surmounting far greater hurdles than any of his clients faced.
Sadly for Running Shaadi, it features some commendable components. For one, it unobtrusively turns an important corner for the portrayal of women’s reproductive rights in Indian cinema by showing a major character opting for an abortion because she is not ready to have a baby. Yes, that dreaded A-word, a place that last year’s Sultan feared to tread.
This passing passage early in the film is handled with such subtlety that it raises expectations for what is to come. Also on point is the non-caricaturish portrayal of small-town conservatism (to be contrasted with big cities where more people use a veneer of liberalism to camouflage their narrow-mindedness).
The initial proceedings are sweetly believable. Too soon though, Running Shaadi begins to wander. Monotony sets in as Bharose and Cyberjeet run through dozens of couples with nary a variation in their personal story and nary a detail that might have made these characters worth investing in. Familial opposition is overcome or even quelled with such ease that you wonder if the filmmaker has ever read of murders sanctioned by khap panchayats, the gruesome crimes that have come to be known as ‘honour killings’, the ‘love jihad’ campaign of recent years, and other socially and politically sanctioned brutalities.
Until this point, Running Shaadi presents itself as social satire. Then suddenly, the film snaps its fingers and becomes an action adventure/thriller without easing us into the change of mood – a mood that it fails to sustain anyway. At this point, the story has shifted to Patna in Bihar and even briefly visits Dalhousie in Himachal Pradesh. The couple at the centre of the post-interval proceedings do face a murderous family, but a sense of urgency is missing in the narrative. The casual treatment is exacerbated by the fact that the narrative has drifted around too long to get here. By now it is too late for the film.
This is a pity, because the characters big and small in Bihar are far more interesting than the ones in Punjab. The highlight of this portion is Brijendra Kala playing Bharose’s uncle, a struggling filmmaker. Kala infuses his Ujjala Mamaji with a warmth and substance that are absent in the rest of the story’s primary players. To be fair, he is also written better than the others in the screenplay by Navjot Gulati and Roy himself.
The film’s cinematography and production design are not distinctive, which is surprising since Roy was a noted cinematographer with Sarkar and Sarkar Raj among other films to his credit before he turned director with this one. A special mention must go though to Manoj Yadav, Shellee, Keegan Pinto, Tanveer Ghazi and Anas Ali Khan for the earthy colloquialisms and attractively informal tone of their engaging lyrics.
Amit Sadh has been excellent in all his films so far, and most of all in Kai Po Che (2013). Taapsee Pannu was utterly brilliant in last year’s Pink. Both need a better written, better edited, better directed drama to house their talents.
While on the subject of editing… The film’s name was changed late in the day from RunningShaadi.com to Running Shaadi following a legal dispute. I do wish the producers (among them Shoojit Sircar, who produced Pink) had further delayed the release to rework it instead of blurring people’s lips and muting the “dotcom” repeatedly. Postponement may have been expensive, but the repeated disruptions are even more so. They are irritating.
Plugging that problem would not have saved the film though from its loose writing, unforgivably limited social insights, feeble direction and screenplay. Running Shaadi is a whimper.