All the way back in 1959, a young Yash Chopra made his directorial debut in Bollywood (or the Hindi film industry) with Dhool Ka Phool. The film revolved around a Muslim family that brought up a Hindu boy after he was abandoned in the forest. It tackled topics like communal harmony, how society used to look down upon adopted children, and the importance of upbringing. Two years later, in 1961, Yash Chopra made his second-ever film, Dharmputra, in which the roles were reversed, and a Muslim kid was brought up in a Hindu family. Chopra reflected on the deeply divisive situation the country was in at the time and prioritized secularism over religious fundamentalism. And these are just two examples. Old Bollywood films are chock full of such calls for unity and diversity. Nowadays, things are different, and the exact opposite agenda is not only being pushed but also being celebrated by a very loud section of the masses. So, it’s refreshing to see Yash Raj Films reigniting that long-extinguished spirit with The Great Indian Family.
Vijay Krishna Acharya’s The Great Indian Family follows Ved Vyas Tripathi, son of Pandit Siya Ram Tripathi. Ved goes by the name Bhajan Kumar because, on the day of his sacred thread ceremony (which marks an upper-caste Brahmin kid’s entry into adulthood), he realized that he could sing really well. Since then, he has been the lead singer at religious festivals, which are commonly known as “bhajan” or “kirtan.” Siya Ram is a professional priest who conducts religious ceremonies, and he has bagged the right to perform the marriage of the daughter of the wealthiest person in Balrampur, Mr. Malpani. However, Siya Ram’s competitor, Pandit Jagannath Mishra, and his son Tulsidas Mishra are trying to hijack the occasion by setting the marriage date around the time Siya Ram will be away for his annual religious trip. Somehow, Siya Ram manages to turn the tide in his favor and tells Ved’s uncle, Balak Ram, to hold the fort until he’s back. However, an unexpected letter arrives that alleges Ved is actually Muslim, thereby putting Ved and the Tripathi family’s reputation at risk.
I don’t think I have to explain to anyone who is living in “New India” why that’s the plot of The Great Indian Family. Thanks to the country’s need to be global, which has exposed the religious majority’s discriminatory habits, I don’t think I have to explain to anyone who isn’t living in “New India” why that is the plot of the film. All I can really do is be surprised at the fact that Vijay Krishna Acharya got the green light to remake Dharmputra; he got to hire a cast and crew; he got to film everything; he got it past the CBFC (also known as the censor board); and it’s now running theatrically. That in and of itself feels like the plot for a Mission: Impossible film. As mentioned before, the current political climate is attracting stories that promote discrimination against religious minorities. They are getting funded. They are being promoted by those in power. And they are being rewarded for being hateful. In this era of Bollywood, here’s Vijay Krishna Acharya, standing tall and saying this vile attitude was wrong, is wrong, and will always be wrong.
With all that said, The Great Indian Family is triggering, at least initially, because it promotes casteism. It makes “surgical strike” jokes (Vicky Kaushal is guilty of being a part of a propaganda film based on that act) while entering the area where the religious minority resides. Ved, Bhaata, and Sarveshwar gleefully harass an individual from a religious minority. Now, that can push a section of the audience to walk out or, worse, entertain another section of the audience. Either way, it’s intentional and meant to show how normalized such activities have become, and it sets the stage for the eventual re-education. And Vijay Krishna Acharya shows no restraint while holding the majority community responsible for creating this volatile and hostile environment. He says that there’s no difference between people from various strata of life because, at the end of the day, everyone is human. He also says that differences between people from various strata of life are created by humans and amplified by bad upbringing under the garb of “family values” or “societal norms.” He also mocks the illusion of democracy, as it is essentially emblematic of majoritarianism. He speaks out against stereotyping. He champions empathy, and the list goes on. It does go into the classic “Don’t insult my father” territory instead of pushing for more familial introspection. Maybe if we become more inclusive, movies will get to do that as well.
Let’s talk about the director, Vijay Krishna Acharya. I am flabbergasted. Yes, he is the man behind Dhoom and Dhoom 2’s screenplays. But he is also responsible for cinematic atrocities like Tashan, Dhoom 3, and Thugs of Hindostan. To be honest, I’ll take chaotic messes like that over the propaganda films we are getting lately any day. However, that’s not the point. The point that I’m trying to make is that Yash Raj Films trusted the man who helmed those films to basically remake Yash Chopra’s second film, Dharmputra. I wouldn’t have been surprised if Aditya Chopra was in the director’s chair. Acharya surprises me, though, not just because he is the one in charge but also because he has knocked it out of the park! The Great Indian Family is a great-looking movie. There’s a lot of fun visual storytelling. So, kudos to Ayananka Bose and Charu Shree Roy. It has impeccable pacing, which is so rare when it comes to Bollywood dramas. The balance between light-hearted comedy, dark comedy, gut-wrenching drama, and social satire is nothing short of beautiful. The songs aren’t all that memorable, but “Ki Farak Painda Hai” should be played everywhere as it loudly promotes communal harmony.
Vicky Kaushal has kind of redeemed himself after Zara Hatke Zara Bachke (a film that reeks of majoritarian privilege) with his amazing performance in The Great Indian Family. The character of Ved is in perpetual confusion and in the wrong hands; this could’ve been a very hollow act. But Vicky makes you feel that this man has lived a life and has taken all the wrong values because of his upbringing. When he shows that Ved wants to change, it doesn’t feel performative. And when Ved realizes that the religious majority in his town needs to change too, and he gives a massive monologue, it sounds like he’s speaking from his heart. Manoj Pahwa is amazing, as always. Alka Amin is effortlessly great. Sadiya Siddiqui and Srishti Dixit are pretty good. Yashpal Sharma and Aasif Khan portray their characters’ unique brand of conniving nature really well. Bhuvan Arora and Ashutosh Ujjwal are fantastic. Manushi Chhillar’s character is really underwritten. So, I won’t totally hold it against her, but she has to improve a lot. As for the rest of the supporting cast, they’re all aces in my book because of their acting prowess and for having the courage to be a part of such a progressive film.
While talking about Jawan, I said that if the movie had been released in a time or in a universe where the people in power served the people instead of making them toe the line, I wouldn’t have been all that impressed by its “vote responsibly” speech. Similarly, if The Great Indian Family had been released in a world where people followed different religions but didn’t kill each other or discriminate against each other every day, I wouldn’t have applauded it. But given how Vijay Krishna Acharya’s film exists in a time when all that is happening on social media, on the streets, and in buildings that symbolize democracy, I have to go easy on its flaws and appreciate it for being boldly secular. I want to hope that films like this don’t become a rarity. I know that is a fool’s hope, but since “giving up” isn’t an option, we all have to be hopeful and actively inclusive. However, that’s just my opinion. The Great Indian Family is currently in theaters (I don’t know for how long because it’s competing with Jawan). So, please go and watch it as soon as you can, form your own opinion, and share your thoughts with us.