The Sridevi character in English Vinglish watches films to learn the nuances of the language. While watching a particular film, she comes across the word, “judgmental.” Puzzled by the word, she requests her niece to explain its meaning. Later, in a speech, she uses this word in the most appropriate manner possible. I thought of this while watching Badhaai Do. To let people be, to let their inner beauty shine, to accept their choices without any judgement whatsoever. Are these not the ultimate expressions of genuine, unconditional love? In the case of this exquisitely made film, I walked away with the feeling that the director Harshavardhan Kulkarni and his team of writers are absolutely in love with the lead characters that they have created. The film is an incredibly important advance in the context of gay and lesbian relationships being portrayed in Indian cinema, with sensitivity, grace and nuance.
One of the film’s biggest strengths is the balance that it strikes between idealism and everyday reality. The film does not take the easy way out in conjuring a utopian world for its lead characters. While it acknowledges the gradually changing landscape in India, it also does an astounding job of showcasing the challenges and issues that continue to persist. One of the fabulously etched arcs in this film is that of the girl’s father (Nitesh Pandey). At first, he breaks his girl’s heart by failing to understand her or accept her orientation. But by the end of the film, he realizes the error of his ways and through a small but meaningful gesture, makes peace with her. By showing the initial, harsh response of the parent, the director gives us an example of how lack of understanding can crush the spirit of a child. But by showing his transformation, we also get to see how the biggest gift that a parent can give a child is acceptance of their choices in a non-judgmental way.
Another undeniable plus of this film is the gorgeous way it shows the leads falling in love with their respective partners. The sequence where Suman (Bhumi Pednekar) makes up an excuse to see Rimjhim (Chum Darang) at the hospital is shot in a delightful manner. Ditto for the sequence where Shardul (Rajkummar Rao) meets Guru (Gulshan Devaiah) for the first time. The ecstasy on Shardul’s face and the silent realization that he is falling for someone is wonderfully captured on screen. The musical score plays no small role in adding to the beauty of these sequences.
‘Show, don’t tell’ is a rule of thumb that filmmakers are advised to follow. It is especially difficult in movies such as Badhaai Do where the temptation to editorialize or preach might become hard to resist. But the director treads this adeptly by just focusing on telling a story and trusting the audience to take away the themes that the film is focused on. For instance, the adoption angle. The film establishes Suman as a character who loves and adores children. The scenes that follow, do their job in establishing the challenges in India for the gay and lesbian community in adopting a child. But by rooting the whole subplot in Suman’s desire to raise a child, the film becomes less of a commentary and more of a story.
There is not one false note among any of the performances. Every actor inhabits their part with much assurance. Both Rajkummar Rao and Bhumi Pednekar are sublime, especially in the scenes with their respective families after the family members get to know of their orientation. The way Rajkummar sobbingly hugs his mother is a standout moment. Bhumi too is astonishingly effective in the late-night scene with her Dad. Suman’s anguish is conveyed mainly through her quivering voice and silent tears. There is also a quiet little moment where she sees an infant. Joy that radiates from within is not easy for an actor to project. That’s precisely what Bhumi does in this sequence. Every member of the supporting cast is pitch-perfect too, effortlessly slipping into their roles. Especially noteworthy is the performance of Sheeba Chaddha, who plays Shardul’s mother. Her character might not be the brightest bulb, but the guilelessness of the character is brought out beautifully by the actress, sans any overemphasis.
The final frame of the film feels just perfect. The smiles of the characters speak volumes. These smiles aren’t the superficial ones that mark the end of wannabe feel-good films. These smiles result from the characters achieving the pinnacle of happiness after all their struggles, both within and those imposed by a narrowminded society. These smiles are a byproduct of finally being able to be with not only their loved ones but also being able to do so with the blessings and wishes of those that mean the world to them. These smiles reflect a triumphant feeling of the present that gives them hope for a bright future. By the time the end credits roll, the audience will realize that these smiles are transposed onto them as well. That infectious positivity is what Badhaai Do radiates so effectively.