Dhadak movie review: Janhvi-Ishaan are so-so in an insipid Sairat remake that is afraid to discuss caste
Dhadak is just plain hollow. Even as a conventional rich-girl-poor-boy romance, it fails miserably, because of the poorly written bond between the lead pair.
castJanhvi, Ishaan, Ashutosh Rana, Kharaj Mukherjee, Shridhar Watsar, Ankit Bisht, Ishika Gajneja
Sairat — Nagraj Popatrao Manjule’s critically acclaimed Marathi blockbuster of which Dhadak is an official remake — was a film about love across caste divides, chilling and entertaining in equal measure. What made it unique on India’s cinematic landscape was that though it placed the gravity of casteism firmly at the centre of its narrative, it was an unapologetically commercial film with a determination to be viewed as mainstream and massy, complete with glossy packaging, striking visuals and Ajay-Atul’s fantastic, cheerful songs. It was as unequivocal about its caste concerns and its focus on a romance between a poor low-caste boy and a wealthy upper-caste girl in rural Maharashtra.
Dhadak (Heartbeat) seems to have completely missed the point of its source material.
The star-crossed lovers in writer-director Shashank Khaitan’s Hindi version of Sairat are Parthavi Singh and Madhukar Bagla. When they first meet they are immature college kids in Udaipur but are soon catapulted into maturity by the hard knocks of life. Her father is a powerful and unscrupulous Rajasthan politician and hotelier, her mother a silent sidekick in the marriage. His parents run a small restaurant in the same city. She is a spoilt brat. He is an obedient son who assists his Mum and Dad at work.
The two have already caught each other’s eye when the film opens. Madhukar’s father becomes aware that something is going on between them, and warns his son against persisting down that path because “voh oonchi jaati ke log hai” (they are upper caste). His fears are well founded as Parthavi and Madhukar learn when her family finds out about their relationship.
Within the constraints of the commercial space where nuance is often viewed as a minus point, Sairat managed to abound with detail about the girl’s family, the boy’s friendships, their differing circumstances and most of all, caste. Dhadak is bereft of detail from start to finish in almost every aspect of its game.
Why, for one, bother to make a film about an inter-caste romance if you are afraid to discuss caste? It is almost bizarre but true that when Dhadak’s finale is past, you realise that this shameful Indian reality was the elephant in the room Khaitan did not address, as though by doing so his candyfloss and popcorn would acquire a bitter taste. That is as weird as revisiting Anand and not mentioning death, or deleting trade unions from a Namak Haraam remake.
Dhadak’s trepidation — or is it apathy? — is in keeping with the attitude of post-1980s Bollywood, in which filmmakers have virtually ignored the existence of India’s lower castes. Their blinkered vision has led to three decades of films in which the world has revolved around Brahmins, Kshatriyas and the occasional Vaishya, while oppressed castes have been erased from the picture. In the matter of representation in scripts, Bollywood has a lot to learn from its counterparts in Marathi, Tamil, Malayalam and Telugu cinema.
The aversion to a scrutiny of caste takes on ridiculous proportions though when a Marathi film that was entirely about a caste-ridden social landscape fraught with danger is remade in Hindi but the remake not only does not specify the boy’s jaati, it references the subject just in passing, and has absolutely nothing to say about the intricacies of human equations in these tricky settings.
To further sanitise itself, perhaps because the poor are deemed too dirty and too much of an inconvenience when you know only how to create fluff, the poverty-stricken background of Sairat’s hero is scrubbed out of the frame and replaced by lower middle class parents for Madhukar in Dhadak. (Possible spoiler alert) Likewise, when Archi and Parshya escape their village in Sairat, they begin a new life in a filthy slum in Hyderabad, but in Dhadak instead their struggles are transported to a scruffy but not-a-slum block of matchbox-sized apartments in Kolkata. (Spoiler alert ends)
Perhaps it is too much to expect sensitivity and inclusion from a director whose last film — Badrinath Ki Dulhania starring Alia Bhatt and Varun Dhawan — romanticised, sympathised with and justified a leading man’s violence towards the heroine, going so far as to have her exonerate him and blame herself for his actions.
Badrinath was disturbing. Dhadak, on the other hand, is just plain hollow. Even as a conventional rich-girl-poor-boy romance, it fails miserably, because of the superficially written bond between the lead pair. The first half is devoted to their aankhon hi aankhon mein ishaara ho gaya style love affair filled with stolen glances and perilous rendezvous, but barely a conversation. There is no depth in their characterisation that might help us understand their willingness to risk life and limb for each other later on.
One of the problematic aspects of Sairat was the writing of the girl as a clichéd heroine who initially plays fast and loose with the hero to test his commitment to her, a couple of times knowingly putting him — and herself for that matter — in great jeopardy. In fact, the big turning point in the plot, the moment her family discovers that they are together, is a result of this behaviour. Not surprisingly, Khaitan gets the woman-as-a-tease part of Sairat down pat.
That, however, is all that he manages to capture from Archi and Parshya’s blossoming affection. In the original, time and thought are invested in acquainting us with Archi’s intrinsically fiery nature, and the way she is indulged by her otherwise imperious Dad. It is because we know how much he dotes on her that his subsequent viciousness has the impact it does. It is because we know what a firebrand she is that her subsequent decisions become believable. In Dhadak, these elements too are sketchily written, as are the pair’s struggles in their new life away from their parents.
What works in Dhadak are Madhukar’s early scenes with his friends (played sweetly by Shridhar Watsar and Ankit Bisht) which inject humour and verve into the proceedings. The snapshots of life in Kolkata in the second half too are interestingly done, and in fact far more insightful than the time spent in Udaipur. And this being a Dharma Productions undertaking, it is filled with resplendent visuals, of course. Vishnu Rao’s cinematography beautifully captures Udaipur in all its delicious glory by day and by night. Rao’s camerawork has already got me planning my next trip to the city, since my last time there was far more rewarding than the trip to the theatre for this vacuous film.
Ajay-Atul’s music was fabulous in Sairat, and is unarguably the best thing about Dhadak too. But the lack of a deserving screenplay to wrap itself around robs it of some of its charm, and I say that even of the heartstoppingly good 'Yad lagla' which has been reworked as 'Pehli baar' with Hindi lyrics by Amitabh Bhattacharya and still in the voice of the wonderful Ajay Gogavale.
This brings us to Dhadak’s much-hyped newcomers Janhvi and Ishaan, she the debutant daughter of pan-India screen legend Sridevi and producer Boney Kapoor, he the half brother of actor Shahid Kapoor and son of Neelima Azeem. Charisma can come through even when it is burdened by faulty writing. Sadly, Janhvi lacks personality and delivers a colourless performance as Parthavi. Ishaan is kinda cute, but he too does not yet possess the screen presence to make a mark in this lacklustre scenario.
In a poorly scripted joke directed at Kangna Ranaut last year, Dhadak’s producer Karan Johar, actors Saif Ali Khan and Varun Dhawan had stood on a stage and chanted the words “nepotism rocks”. No man, Karan, it does not, especially when it means giving big-banner, high-profile breaks to youngsters who would not have got a toe in the door in mainstream Bollywood if it were not for their connections.
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