Shuddh Desi Romance begins like Annie Hall. Which is to say it begins unlike any other Hindi movie romance, ever. A character talks to the camera, equates relationships and commitment to Vikram and Betaal, and wins us over: not with the usual movie-star attributes of charm or boyishness or roguish wit or a big all-conquering smile, but with his sheer sincerity. With the fact that he bloody believes in what he’s saying. And he looks frazzled as hell.
He also happens to speak just like the film’s screenwriter does. A bit of Jaideep Sahni drips invariably out into his memorable creations — his flawed, amusing, whimsical, ever-indignant and eventually noble protagonists — every single time, but there’s more of him, I daresay, in Raghuram Sitaram, the character caught in the middle of Shuddh Desi Romance. You might have noticed that I’m not calling the character a hero, and that’s because he isn’t one. He is, instead, a lead character caught between two heroines, a boy who suffers (and soars) because of how he’s turned on by girls with backbone.
And who can blame him? In Gayatri and Tara, Sahni — and director Maneesh Sharma, who, after the masterful Band Baaja Baaraat and this film, should stick to movies with a marriage motif — create two new-age heroines who are empowered, self-assured, and play by their own rulebooks. The independence they flaunt is out of motives of their own choosing, and their decision-making isn’t coloured by the many men around them. At a time when it seems the Indian man needs to be coached on what women are, it is imperative that a film like this, with girls like this, is seen by as many people as possible. Go on, you lot, make this film a hit.
The film must also be commended for the way it highlights the surefootedness of its female leads without robbing the man of his will. He is a creature of whimsy and escape, a professional liar and a streetsmart rogue, and yet he’s drawn to these women. He feels their tug irrationally and even masochistically and he responds because he must. He comes on too strong but gladly bends down to a submissive role in a relationship, and is comfortable enough in his own skin to take orders without worrying about how he comes across. He is, in other words, cool enough to know they are cooler.
A progressive script with atypical characters needs a committed cast, and the youngsters in Shuddh Desi Romance are the kind worth applause. Parineeti Chopra is impressively natural — not least when she flippantly calls her lover “bhaiyya”, insouciant and scandalous all in one breath — and gives a performance full of candour. Newcomer Vaani Kapoor takes a difficult role and, aided by a luminous smile her character uses for inscrutability and to club away all self-doubt, makes herself the one worth cheering for loudest. And Sushant Singh Rajput, a young man with significant presence and solid acting chops, is an actor confident enough to surrender to the absurdity of his character, a leading man who doesn’t mind opening his mouth in an Asrani grin.
Watching these youngsters, and looking for all the world like an Air India Maharaja come alive, is Rishi Kapoor. He observes these warm-blooded kids and their triangular machinations with befuddled interest, with affection and without empathy. He represents, in my mind, the old guard. He is the face of how things used to be: filmi, somewhat caricatured, well-meaning but ultimately, in a modern construct, out of place.
Older eyebrows would indeed be raised at this film and its numerous kisses — the first of which takes place with the couple in a crowded space, locking lips almost cognisant of the camera, treating it like a persistent voyeur — yet these are treated with breezy matter-of-factness. The reason there are so many kisses (I read a pre-release puff piece daftly promoting this as “a film with 27 kisses”) is because none of them are earth-shattering, none of them matter as much as they did back when a kiss was a headline.
I’m aware I haven’t spoken about the film’s story at all, and that’s because this isn’t a review. I hope you’ve watched it already, and if you haven’t — and have still read this far — I sincerely hope I’ve managed to convince you that its worth a shot.
For all its pleasures, Shuddh Desi Romance isn’t a perfect film. A film this real — it does, at times, approach the easy believability of early Sai Paranjpye cinema — should not allow its characters to lipsync songs, and the last ten or so minutes ought not to exist at all.
No, Shuddh Desi Romance isn’t a masterpiece. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a film worth falling for.
First published Rediff, September 11, 2013