The concept of a “lavender marriage” has apparently existed since the 20th century—a marriage of convenience between two partners to conceal the sexual orientation of one or both of said partners. The reasoning is primarily, if not completely, due to social stigma. The premise of “Badhaai Do” begins with the lavender marriage. Shardul Thakur (Rajkummar Rao) is a man from a typical middle-class family, made upper-caste by the inherent privilege residing within him. He is a man with the dreams of being a bodybuilder, roped into the job of a policeman because of that elusive, secure government job that no one would want to let go of. He is a complete package of masculinity according to societal standards – a policeman, a man of high stature and more than average physique, and a standing in society. Except for a teeny-tiny wrinkle, he is gay.
Elsewhere Bhumi Pednekar’s Sumi is a PT teacher who has been a victim of a previous relationship gone awry, forced to marry a man against her sexual orientation. By a stroke of fate, her fiancé passed away just a couple of weeks before her marriage. She dreams of being in a relationship with the woman of her choice and wishes to adopt a child and be a mother-all stuck due to legal rigmarole and general societal limitations.
Until she is approached by Shardul Thakur and asked to partake in this marriage of convenience so that their family would lay off their backs, stop pestering them about marriage (heterosexual, obviously), and they would be free to live their lives in hiding. Unfortunately, life has other plans.
“Badhaai Do” had every reason to become the traditional social issue-driven movie set in North India. It would be foolhardy to say that the film is a complete subversion of the genre as a whole, but it does the one thing that most of these message-driven movies fail to do – tell a comprehensive story, focusing on organic character development instead of being a delivery system for a social message.
Director Harshvardhan Kulkarni, with his co-writers, crafts a story dealing with the repercussions of the lavender marriage, the lying, the sneaking around, and the innumerable contrivances to sidestep and deal with the expectations of societal and familial expectations. Shardul, more than Sumi, seems bound to the traditional norms of the family unit, and he struggles to get out of the inherent privilege within himself, as Sumi tries to break free of these expectations, which have become crutches for her freedom of living. The characters are the major draw in “Badhaai Do.” The movie deals with their sexuality as the primary focus but doesn’t shy away from their flaws. They are also prone to suffering from cheating, seduction, heartbreak, striving for their freedom, and confusion while making decisions, being awkward when they are supposed to be firm. The inherently flawed humanity of these characters comes through little moments.
Kulkarni’s focus on these little moments elevates this movie from standard Hindi Film Industry fare. The scene where Shardul and Sumi meet to talk about the marriage takes place in a park, patrolled by police guards to keep lovers at bay. As she was hearing out Shardul’s marriage proposal, Sumi was experiencing a sense of disbelief, bafflement, and irritation, primarily because she couldn’t believe she was here until she was privy to the knowledge of Shardul’s sexuality. Seeing Shardul sweat and try to sweet-talk one of the guards who had “caught them in the act,” her demeanor softens, and she offers him a bottle of water. This simple act shows a sense of kinship, which blossoms slowly as the movie progresses. Their friendship becomes endearing to watch, even as they repeatedly quarrel and try to adjust to the overbearing nature of Shardul’s family. Shardul’s knowledge and acceptance of difference in the public and private spaces of his life, comes to a head when Sumi moves in with her girlfriend, Rimjhim (Chum Darang), to their house in the police colony. Credits to the writers of “Badhaai Do” that the movie doesn’t end with Shardul reconciling both aspects of his life into a single whole because reality is markedly different. However, when Shardul reveals his sexuality to his family in the third act, rushes to the terrace, and calls for Sumi, we see him unable to speak. So used to staying in the closet, the mere act of coming out of it destroys Shardul and simultaneously sets him free, a reaction echoed by his mother, played by the sublime Sheeba Chaddha. A woman used to being put down when in the presence of far more dominating members of her joint family, unable to navigate her life after the loss of her husband, finally embraces her son, understanding the pain of living in silence and bursting her emotions out.
In a genre populated by roles played by Ayushmann Khurana, Rajkummar Rao as Shardul Thakur is easily one of the more memorable Hindi film industry protagonists we have seen in a while. Vain, awkward, funny, privileged and yet sensitive and vulnerable when he wants to be, the moment when Shardul wears the mask to join in solidarity with the Pride Parade while remaining outside of the parade as an officer of the law is a highlight of acting in an already impressive performance. Bhumi Pednekar matches him in equal stride, while Gulshan Devaiah steals the show in a hilarious and charismatic cameo. The performances sidestep the issues with the movie, which is a tad bit too long with the comedy failing to land in key places. The rest of the supporting cast isn’t as well developed as I would have liked, even though their archetypal definitions were effective. Far more effective were the songs, even though they contributed to the runtime being bloated. However, notwithstanding these flaws, the little moments cumulatively create an experience far more enriching.
“Badhaai Do” came out the same week as “Gehraiyaan,” with the latter being the source of much debate and discussion and the former almost listed in the furore. It’s a shame because “Badhaai Do” is an important step forward in normalizing queer romance in the Hindi film industry’s mainstream culture, far more sensitively and effectively than “Shubh Mangal Saavdhaan” ever did.
“Badhaai Do” is a 2022 Indian Romance Comedy film directed by Harshavardhan Kulkarni.