Helmet movie review: Unusual, brave theme but that's not enough
Helmet takes on a brave theme. But the subsequent holding back robs it of much potential depth, and limits the discussion on condoms in the film mostly to one dimension.
castAparshakti Khurana, Pranutan Bahl, Abhishek Banerjee, Ashish Verma, Anurita Jha, Ashish Vidyarthi, Sharib Hashmi
Across the world, men by and large tend to place the onus for birth control on women. This despite the fact that condoms and vasectomy are simple and safe, whereas every single contraceptive and permanent sterilisation option devised for women is complex with serious potential side effects. The situation is troubling in any country, but in India where the population explosion is a grave threat, it is particularly challenging and has been a long-standing hurdle in the path of the National Family Planning Programme.
In such a scenario, obviously a film that promotes condom use is significant. Writer-director Satramm Ramani’s Helmet – co-produced by model-turned-actor Dino Morea – is about a young man who has had multiple professional doors slammed in his face and finally, through a series of circumstances, finds himself in the condom sales business.
The story takes place in a north Indian town called Raj Nagar where the hero, Lucky (Aparshakti Khurana), is an out-of-luck former wedding band singer in love with Rupali (Pranutan Bahl) who supplies floral arrangements for shaadis. Lucky is running out of options to convince Rupali’s father (Ashish Vidyarthi) that he is a worthy groom. A twist of fate forces him to peddle condoms, a product he was earlier too embarrassed to ask for at his local chemist shop.
The narrative is entertaining up to the point where condoms become money-spinning merchandise for Lucky. From then on though, Helmet thins out.
We know from Stree that Aparshakti Khurana can be brilliant. We know that about Abhishek Banerjee from Stree and Paatal Lok. And Pranutan Bahl’s screen presence is as evident here as it was in her debut film Notebook. Ultimately though, great acting can only emerge from great writing, direction and editing, and all three are ill-served by the script of Helmet, although all three do have their moments in the film.
If you have chosen to stick your neck out with a theme like condom use in a country where sex and birth control are still not openly discussed in most families, then it makes sense to go all in. Helmet, however, takes that initial risk but then holds itself back. Although an episode at a brothel (featuring a very impressive Anurita Jha) makes a mention of men’s unwillingness to use condoms since they feel it interferes with their “mazaa”, the overriding, overwhelming impression created by the film, the line emphasised throughout the story, is that men’s shyness is the chief issue.
Certainly, considering how sexually conservative Indian society is, it is embarrassing for the average man to visit a store and pick up a packet of condoms (it is likely social suicide for a woman to do so at an establishment where she is recognised). In this respect, Helmet accurately represents the Indian reality. Considering the taboos on a social discourse about contraception, it is commendable that the film brings up the subject at all, going so far as to educate viewers about how condoms play a part in preventing sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). In what ranks as a pathbreaking moment for mainstream Hindi cinema, Helmet also acknowledges that sex workers serve an important role in society. Even the fleeting reference to men viewing condoms as disruptors of their sexual pleasure is noteworthy for a mainstream film.
However, Helmet is careful not to stress the latter point. (Minor spoiler in this sentence) In fact, miracles occur once Lucky finds a solution to the social awkwardness men feel in purchasing condoms, again suggesting that this is the primary problem. (Spoiler alert ends)
Did the team feel they might make the male-dominated audience uncomfortable by rubbing it in their faces that selfishness, apathy and misplaced notions of masculinity are the main reasons why most men do not like to get vasectomised or use condoms? Or did they lack the skill to explore the intricacies involved and show us how the men of an entire large town were convinced to be responsible in sexual relations?
Whatever be the reason, this approach robs Helmet of much potential depth and limits the discussion on condoms in the film mostly to one dimension.
The halfway feel pervades the rest of the writing too. The title Helmet, for instance, might seem like a clever play on the purpose of condoms, but the writers do not have the chops to effectively pull off the wordplay.
Rupali is feisty, smart and financially independent, but like Raj in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge – a film actually named in a conversation by an important character – Lucky too is not willing to marry her without Daddy’s approval, but the reason for his old-world attitude is barely articulated. Her muted response, on the other hand, does not match the firebrand we meet in her introductory scene.
Rupali’s inconsistent characterisation combined with intermittently dipping energy in the second half and the un-fun writing of a friend of the hero, in addition to other factors already cited, reduce Helmet to being far less than it should have been considering its unconventional topic. That friend, played by Ashish Verma, keeps mishearing what Lucky and another cohort (Abhishek Banerjee) say. To be honest, I am still not sure whether this is because he is hearing impaired or absent-minded or both. Whatever be the case, this is a running gag through Helmet that ends up being oddly bland.
It is likely that I am thoroughly spoilt by the clarity in Sara’s, the recently released Malayalam film that revolved around a woman who seeks an abortion when she gets pregnant due to contraceptive failure. Hindi cinema may have come a long way from the days when pretty much every single heroine who had pre-marital sex was punished with an unwanted pregnancy and a “paap ki nishaani”, but it remains largely conservative about birth control as we saw just weeks back in Mimi. In that context, Helmet is a step forward. The careful treatment of a brave theme dilutes its impact, but what really does it in is the scattered writing on more than one front.
Helmet is streaming on ZEE5.
Footnote: The subtitling of Helmet is careless and sometimes inexplicable. In one scene, the subs use asterisks to mask what one might have assumed is a swear word, except that the original Hindi line spoken there does not contain any. And when a woman asks for “four packets” of condoms, the text on screen changes the number to five!
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