As someone who has grown up watching Bollywood movies, it doesn’t give me any pleasure to go to the theater every week to watch subpar projects that leave a bad taste in my mouth. Even the movies that are widely celebrated by audiences have some kind of propaganda weaved into their narrative, thereby making their financial success feel problematic. And then there’s the current uptick in Hindi films, which apparently have a progressive theme but end up peddling traditionalism to those who are trying to come out of its shackles. Since Kartik Aaryan had done Luka Chuppi and Kiara Advani had done Jugjugg Jeeyo—two movies that are guilty of pushing traditionalism under the garb of being modern—I expected more of the same in Satyaprem Ki Katha. However, to my surprise, I ended up watching one of my favorite movies of the year.
Satyaprem Ki Katha tells the story of Satyaprem/Sattu, who lives with his father, mother, and sister. Sattu and his father are unemployed. Sattu’s mother teaches garba, and Sattu’s sister hosts zumba classes, thereby making them the earning members of the family and causing a power shift that’s not traditionally present in patriarchal Indian households. Since everyone around Sattu is getting married, he wonders why he isn’t being considered a suitable candidate despite his good looks and personality. When his parents tell him to choose for himself instead of waiting for an arranged marriage, Katha enters the plot. She’s someone that Satyaprem likes very much, but he’s unable to woo her as she is already in a relationship. As soon as he learns that Katha has broken up with her boyfriend, he tries to use this opportunity to make a place for himself in her heart. However, the confrontation opens a world of issues that are considered taboo by Boomers, thereby causing both Satyaprem and Katha to reckon with their past, present, and future.
I don’t know which aspect I should pick first to start praising Satyaprem Ki Katha. Okay, let’s begin with the writing. Karan Shrikant Sharma’s mind is functioning on so many levels—that too with a lot of empathy—that it is astonishing. I have to get into spoilers. So, please forgive me, even though I know that it won’t ruin your viewing experience. In the most meta way imaginable, Sharma spends most of the first half of the movie pretending to be the author of the most generic Bollywood movie in existence. Cringeworthy attempts at flirting, casual misogyny, hardcore misogyny for having sex before marriage, championing virginity, using one’s attempt at suicide to portray the hero as the knight in shining armor—it’s all there. And if you don’t know what is around the corner, all of this is hard to watch. It even runs the risk of triggering you so much that you may exit the theater. But I didn’t have that option because I had to write this review. Therefore, I stayed in my seat and watched the movie evolve into a commentary on how the aforementioned aspects of our society are incredibly dated and, hence, should be abolished.
Furthermore, in the second half, Sharma delves into sexual abuse, asexuality, victim shaming, raising men properly, and empowering women to stand up for their rights. And this is where Satyaprem Ki Katha begins a conversation with not just the pitfalls of Indian society but Bollywood films as well. For a really long time, sexual assault has been used as an excuse to let the hero unleash his inner demons, as if that’s going to help anyone with anything other than satiate the man’s bloodlust. The scenes of assault have been portrayed in a very graphic manner for the dumbest reasons imaginable. In addition to that, victims of such incidents have been shamed and shunned by society to such an extent that they are left with no other option but to take their own lives. Sharma firmly calls out all this while presenting a pair of aspirational protagonists. They have genuine, heartfelt conversations in which Katha explains what it feels like to be a victim and be hated by their own parents. There’s no graphic depiction of Katha’s scarring experience. Satya leads with empathy, which allows Katha to come to terms with the fact that she shouldn’t let her past define her. Even if Satya is a person with no experience in any facet of life and even though he uses his love for the truth to be rude, he transforms into a person who accepts Katha’s true story and fights back against any attempt to label her as a blot on anyone’s “pride.” When Satya’s male savior complex feels too apparent, he pulls back and asks what Katha actually wants to do. On the surface, bringing up asexuality can seem irresponsible, but Katha’s lies and Satya’s lack of understanding after searching the internet highlights that we still need to learn a lot about this side of the LGBTQA+ community.
Satyaprem Ki Katha can feel like it’s prioritizing its male lead over its female lead, but that’s probably because men have to do all the learning so that women can live freely. Until and unless men understand that they are the problem and realize that they have to fix themselves, things aren’t going to get better. So I don’t think it’s necessarily a problem. In fact, making the naive Satyaprem the audience surrogate allows the audience to understand everything from scratch. The learning process is hugely helped by Sameer Vidwans’ deft handling of the tone. Along with cinematographer Ayananka Bose and editor Charu Shree Roy, Vidwans uses the canvas to convey the ups and downs in Satyaprem and Katha’s relationship. There’s a shot of Kartik and Kiara standing on either side of a door with a glass pane, and it’s etched into my mind. A simple shot of Kartik embracing Kiara even though her character is unable to open up to him is quite moving, and it feels like a tight slap on the face of victim-shaming Bollywood movies. The way the scene between Katha and Satyaprem’s relatives unfolds in Satyaprem’s absence is chilling. The care taken to examine the dynamics between Satyaprem, Katha, and their family members with visuals alone is worth appreciating. And here’s a hot take: the controversy around the ‘Pasoori’ remake is partially unfounded because Vidwans uses it to underscore the melancholic nature of Satyaprem and Katha’s romance. Yes, it can be criticized for being a remake of a widely popular Pakistani song. But saying that the film misunderstood its lyrics and misused the song is wrong. By the way, the rest of the songs in the film are quite good.
Coming to the performances in Satyaprem Ki Katha, Kartik Aaryan and Kiara Advani have knocked it out of the park. But I can’t help but feel there’s a meta-narrative behind their casting as well. See, Kartik has been guilty of peddling a lot of misogyny through his movies throughout his career. Kiara’s most successful film, Kabir Singh, saw her character fall in love with a groomer and then the filmmaker celebrated it. So, putting them together seems like giving them an opportunity to redeem themselves after all that nonsense. If that sounds like a stretch, please ignore that and focus on the fact that both Kartik and Kiara are awesome. I’ve previously said that, instead of trying to be a typical Bollywood star, Kartik needs to double down on his inherent awkwardness. That’s exactly what he does here! He is at his most awkward, most juvenile, and most stupid. But that allows him and his character to mature in ways that I haven’t seen in a Bollywood film recently. I mean, I couldn’t believe I was crying in Kartik Aaryan’s scenes with Supriya Pathak, Gajraj Rao, and Kiara. Regarding Kiara, I’ve said that her talent has been severely underutilized. She has immense range, but she’s always let down by the writing. In Satyaprem Ki Katha, she gets to spread her wings and soar. All of her scenes are gut-wrenching but not defeatist. She pushes everyone in the audience who does not understand the concept of consent or doesn’t empathize with victims of assault to walk a mile in Katha’s shows and open their eyes. And she inspires folks to stand up to their assaulters without wondering if it’s too late to lodge a case because it takes time to recover from such an ordeal. Additionally, Kartik and Kiara’s chemistry is truly great because it doesn’t come from the typical source of romance. It’s made of self-acceptance, mutual understanding, and sensibility and is devoid of the constant need for physical intimacy. As for the supporting cast, everyone is splendid. Rao, Pathak, Siddharth Randeria, and Anuradha Patel have a lot of pivotal scenes because, with the exception of Pathak, they are the punching bags (i.e. antagonists) for outdated ideas of honor and pride. Some of it is triggering, but at the end of the day, they show that even parents have a lot to learn from their children and that their way of upbringing can be wrong. Also, after seeing a social media post glorifying mothers who are victims of patriarchy, it’s so satisfying to see Supriya Pathak play a mother who doesn’t mollycoddle her only son and champions her daughter. Of course, she rewards him with love when he acts like a grown man. But not before that. All in all, everyone in the cast is a winner.
I can go on and on about Satyaprem Ki Katha so that I can deal with how baffled I am after coming across a good Bollywood film. It’s not flawless. No movie is flawless. But its positives outweigh its negatives by many, many miles. The phrase “important movie” has been used a lot. However, I do think this is one of the most important movies of all time. It’s the antidote for the venom that has been pushed by misogynistic films and the flagbearers of the rape culture in India. I know that the phrase “watch this movie with your family” has been used so much that it’s scoffed at because Indians love to do everything with their family. That said, if you have a family that is hugely regressive and wants you to be regressive as well, take them to watch this film. If you have a progressive family, you can take them to watch it too. If you want to watch it on your own, like I did, you can do that too! Just go and watch Satyaprem Ki Katha. That’s all I want you to do. We need more movies that are progressive Trojan horses invading the cities of bigotry!