Finally watched it! Months and months later. And years late to the whole Luv Ranjan genre. And I am fascinated! It is so much better, in so many ways, than I expected. Oh, and this is an insanely long review, partly because of the huge block quote in the middle of it. But it was too good to shorten!
Going into this film, I knew that Kartik Aaryan was an actor on the way up, Luv Ranjan is a director on the way up (next film with Ajay Devgn), and that they and the films they make together sort of came into the industry sideways, no big studio backing, no family connections, don’t easily fit into a usual genre, and yet they are there and, slowly, they are getting more and more talked about.
What I had heard about the Kartik/Luv films is that they were misogynistic, sex comedies, “modern”, all kinds of things that gave me visions of the Masti series and other terrible things like that. And Kartik as a rising star, I was worried it was less about him being the next big thing and more about him just being willing to say/do explicit stuff on screen that no one else would. And ditto for the films, that they were only popular because they went farther than everyone else, shock films instead of good films.
And turns out, at least for this film, it’s not true! Okay, it’s a little true, there is a lot of explicit stuff about sex, and a lot of bad language. And this film is about male friendship over all other bonds. But Kartik is a legitimately brilliant comic performer, and there is a certain pep and rhythm to this film that shows a talented director, not just a shock-jock. A talented director and a talented writer. There are some great dialogues, and the plot is extremely tight, twisted, and surprising.
Most of all, it is far from the misogynist nightmare I was expecting! Yes, there is a female antagonist, but there is also a female character who is written off as an antagonist and then shown to in fact be more moral, intelligent, and just all around better than the male characters. Without ever turning into a boring love interest!
Kartik Aaryan is getting the press, but I learned when looking at the cast list that the two young female leads, Nushrat Bharucha and Ishita Raj Sharma, were also regular collaborators. In fact, Kartik and Nushrat have now co-starred in a variety of ways 4 times. That alone tells me the film can’t be too misogynistic. Because if it was truly misogynistic, if this was a world where women were pointless, then why would you hire the same actress over and over again in increasingly larger parts?
(Even the end credits song, starts out like objectification, but then just turns into the 3 stars dancing together with Nushrat highlighted as the center. And then Kartik objectified as much or more than her later in the song)
Yes, the bare outlines of the plot are your standard “bros before ladies” kind of thing. But it’s a lot more than it’s bare outlines. It never treats the female characters as disposable, Kartik has casual sex but he does it only with consent and enjoyment on both sides. We never see him “tricking” a woman into sleeping with him, or avoiding her the next day and causing emotional hurt. We never EVER see a moment of violence towards a woman. Or even an implication of a threat of violence. And this in a movie with a female antagonist. Kartik may hate her, but he would never ever ever consider using his superior strength to harm her, or threaten harm, and win in that way. And it is a movie about an arranged marriage, where there is never even a hint of a possibility of a forced marriage. The basic assumption is that the girl has as much right to turn down the boy as he does her. Even dowry, dealt with through a tossed off “of course not, who does dowry these days?”
In my “feminist film theory” post, I talked about looking for “Presence, Voice, and Agency” in the basic structure of the film. This movie has that in spades. For all of it’s female characters, we know who they are and what they want and we see them go after it. By the end of the film, Kartik, our hero who has no female friends, has also learned to respect women and wants to get married himself. Not because he has fallen in love, but simply because he has learned to appreciate women as more than sex partners.
(This is Kartik only seeing them as sex partners. But as enthusiastic consenting sex partners, there’s no fantasy of force here)
This isn’t to say this is a perfect feminist film. Absolutely, there are not-great bits. It supports the idea that a woman might just be “tricking” a man by trying to be nice, and there is a repeated theme of marriage being foolish and horrible, and that the happy all male life is the best. I’m just saying I wouldn’t write off this film as being simply “anti-woman”, there is more to it.
I was watching this movie mostly thinking how, while the superficial elements were misogynistic, the core threats to women were less present than they are in the usual film. And I was wondering if that was on purpose and looking back at the previous movies made by the Luv-Kartik-Nushrat team. Pyaar Ka Punchamma 1 and 2, which I have not seen, sound potentially much worse than this film, 3 girlfriends who are all, in their own way, terrible people that do not deserve their boyfriends. But buried in there was the unsuccessful romantic drama (not comedy) between Kartik and Nushrat, Akaash Vani. And I read the plot synopsis and went “!!!!” Because it is EXACTLY what I was thinking of in terms of addressing the real true dangers to women, not the harmless flirtation at parties and mutually agreed upon one night stands, but the actual poisons of Indian society.
Akaash Vani, starred the same three stars as this movie in another love triangle, with the same director, same writer, same producer. Only this time, the love triangle was between the loving college boyfriend, and the abusive arranged marriage husband. And unlike every other Hindi movie I can think of, it did not end with re-affirming the importance of marriage. Instead, it ended with the heroine giving this epic, and epicly satisfying, speech. So good that I took the time to copy down the subtitles and you can read it below in it’s entirety, with my favorite parts in bold.
I can’t stay with Ravi. I want a divorce. What are you afraid of? That what people will say? What if this was happening with my sister? If her marriage was falling apart, you would have been happy. And felt let her pay for whatever she has done, as that mistake was made by her. And this is your mistake, so why do you want me to compromise? Only because this mistake has been made by you, do you want me to pay for it my whole life? [Mother: we were acting in your best interests!] Lie! Absolute lie! You are not saying this in my best interests, but to protect your pride in society. I’m not saying parents should have no right in choosing partner for their children. But if children are unhappy, shouldn’t parents own up to that responsibility? Today I just want to ask this one thing to you, that why when a daughter says to her father that the partner they have chosen for her is not right, why then is she told to compromise? And assured falsely that everything will be fine? And when the same mistake is committed by a daughter in choosing the wrong partner, she is mocked and asked to pay for her own mistake? [Mother: But what is it that is missing in your life? This is a common thing in all households. Once you start a family…] Why can’t you understand that starting a family is not the solution? I would be even more trapped then! When I can’t stand the person, how can I even think of starting a family with him? If in every household the wife is raped, then I don’t want to live in such a household. If more than my happiness you are bothered about what the society would think and how they would perceive, then No. I am not prepared to bare the consequences of your mistake. No matter whose mistake it is in life and how big, one shouldn’t be stopped from living. [Husband: Why don’t you say something? My wife, who is my pride, is tarnishing my pride in front of everyone!] Pride! Which pride are you talking about? The one that you rape every night? Or the one who you can’t even protect from being molested during the day? [Husband tries to drag her off, her parents stand and do nothing, she slaps him and frees herself]
She forces her parents to accept their responsibility in destroying their child’s life. She forces them to face that children only “solve” the problem because the permanently trap a woman and stop her from complaining. And she says “rape”, says it over and over again, makes them confront the reality of what is happening to her, and what is happening in all those other households where wives are told to “compromise” and “adjust”.
And yes, Akaash Vani another movie with crude language and sex jokes and drunken parties. But that’s the good bit of life, the free crazy college years, it’s the second half with the forced marriage that is the bad part.
So, I don’t think I am imagining things when I watch this movie and go “wait, are the female characters being given as much sexual agency, intelligence, and worth as the male characters? I think they are! I think this film might actually be kind of awesome!” It’s draped in crass humor and sex and alcohol, and male friendship. But the female characters are strong interesting and independent, and ultimately the lesson of the film, and the lesson that the characters learn, is not to write them off as the “enemy” or merely tools to be used, but to think of them as real people.
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A complaint I heard about this movie before watching it is that it is about some poor girl being punished when her only sin is coming between the hero and his best friend. Which is maybe how the trailer sold it, but it is CERTAINLY not what the actual film was about!
This is a classic Indian film structure, the first half ends with a massive plot shift, making the second half start in an entirely new place. The trailers, as is traditional, only showed bits of the first half and hinted at the second. Which left you with a flavor of “poor abused girl and evil woman-hating hero”. But, NO!!!! They skipped over the big twists that are built in when you actually watch the film and which make it so much more than that.
I’ll start with the “bromance” first. Luv Ranjan has made a bunch of movies about male roommate friend groups, and this one looks like yet another one. But it’s much more than that. Kartik’s mother died when he was little and he was adopted into the family of his best friend Sunny Singh. Their friendship is much more than just a friendship, it is a lifetime bond, the closest in their lives. And because of his unofficial status in the family, if their friendship ends, Kartik has nothing and no one. For Nushrat to threaten the friendship between them is not just a “girlfriend” kind of thing to do, it is truly wrong. It’s not a friendship that is mean to be left behind as they grow up, but one that should be respected for the important bond it is and protected. We even see that in other characters of the film, Alok Nath and Virendra Saxena as two old men who are still happily best friends and Alok’s wife Madhumalti Kapoor has no problem with this because their bond is special. Even the reason Kartik and Sunny because friends, it is because their mother’s were best friends and it is partly in memory of that bond that Sunny’s mother Ayesha Mishra took in little boy Kartik and still loves him now. It’s a movie world that encourages homosocial friendships between both sexes as healthy and something that should be balanced with cross-gender bonds.
And then there’s the romance. Again, the trailer sells it as Sunny and Nushrat falling in love and Kartik trying to break them up. But, NO!!!! You could even look at it as a progressive feminist statement against arranged marriages. If you wanted to.
See, Sunny and Ishita Raj Sharma had a two year long relationship, dating and sex and all the rest of it. And then they broke up and Sunny was sad and decided to have an arranged marriage instead, which Kartik thought was insane. Because how can you marry someone you don’t even know? He also argued that Sunny clearly wasn’t over Ishita, because that was real love and a real relationship (not in a romantic Twu Luv way, but because they had formed a strong real bond), and he couldn’t possibly be feeling the same kind of feelings for someone he just met and doesn’t really know.
(The woman who dances and parties with you knows you better than the sweet innocent family approved girl)
And the film agrees with Kartik, Ishita reappears in the second half and she is also still missing Sunny. Maybe she wasn’t a great girlfriend, but that didn’t mean their relationship meant nothing to her, dating relationships are real things. It is the arranged marriage relationships that are shallow and tricks. It’s not “bromance” versus “romance”, it’s “long term relationships that are chosen” versus “brief relationships forced on you by society”, whether that is Sunny and Ishita or Kartik and Sunny.
You could have that whole message and still make Nushrat a nice person. Nice, but a little insensitive to the importance of Kartik’s friendship for Sunny and vice versa, and a little blind to the shallowness of the arranged marriage relationship. But this film takes it a step further, just to make sure we really truly fully understand.
At first, Kartik is a good friend and supports Sunny in his romance. He voices his objections, that it is too fast and they don’t really know her and somehow it just feels too good to be true, but then listens when Sunny asks him to get to know Nushrat. And just in case the audience thinks Kartik is completely imagining things just because he is jealous, Alok Nath confirms it, the wise old grandfather points out he noticed the same things that are a little bit too good and also doesn’t trust Nushrat OR HER FAMILY. It’s not a matter of distrusting the girl, it’s a matter of distrusting the whole family as scam artists. Alok’s reasons are unrelated to Nushrat in fact, it is that her father was clearly lying and overly complimentary which makes him distrust them.
Kartik investigates and does due diligence in a way that Alok is unable to do and everyone else is too blind to consider and he finds more information on Nushrat, that she had a previous engagement that failed in mysterious circumstances and which she never revealed. And then, in the scene that would have been the resolution to a far inferior film, Kartik confronts her and she emotionally explains that the previous relationship had failed because he was cheating on her and betraying her, and finally he tried to force her into pre-marital sex. Kartik guilty and sad, especially when Nushrat sweetly says that she thought after marriage she would be getting both a husband and a “brother”.
(And then they all dance together, new era, threesome together forever)
If the movie had ended there, it truly would have been misogynistic. Kartik investigated purely because he didn’t like women, and Nushrat is an empty vessel for Sunny’s love and Kartik’s hate. Yes she is redeemed at the end, but the overall message of the film that the audience would come out with is “women shouldn’t be trusted and it is fun to mess with them even when they can’t hit back”.
But, it doesn’t end there! Instead, after a joyful song between the 3 of them at the formal engagement party, Nushrat tracks down Kartik and tells him that she has won, he has lost, and once she is in Sunny’s life, she will throw Kartik out and take over everything. Dun dun dun!!!!
The film doesn’t come right out and say Nushrat wants to marry Sunny just because he is rich, but it is heavily implied that both she and her family are a bit of a grifting group. What is clear is that Nushrat wants to throw Kartik out in order to make Sunny more miserable and isolated and the household as a whole more under her thumb. Kartik is actually correct to want to protect Sunny from her.
If it had been left at that, Nushrat versus Kartik and all women are horrible, then it would be a misogynistic film in a different way. Maybe Kartik, our hero, isn’t prejudiced but merely correct in this one instance, but the message of the film as a whole is that women can’t and shouldn’t be trusted. But the film goes past that in a really interesting way!
Kartik’s plan is to take Sunny away for a bachelor party getaway, and throw him together with his ex Ishita. Ishita was established in the opening scene as a terrible girlfriend. Always fighting with Sunny, telling him he dressed wrong and ate wrong and making fun of his taste in movies. Kartik encouraged Sunny to end it with her because she was making him miserable. And he was right, at least he was right that Sunny was miserable and it was a bad relationship. But now, in the second half, we see that all of that could be true without making Ishita an actual bad person.
(And on a meta leval, this means two separate actresses get major dance numbers and roles in this film. More than a mainstream film has down for actresses in ages. And two actresses that this director has loyally brought back and promoted along with his actors in every movie, more than plenty of mainstream directors have done. And did I mention that Nushrat is 33? And Muslim? And from a non-film background and had to struggle and work to get noticed? Not the kind of actress the glossy proper films would consider using. Oh, and Ishita is from a tiny village in Bihar)
She almost cries when she first meets Sunny again and Kartik has to encourage her to get it together and stay superficial, keep trying to “trick” him instead of honestly telling him that she is sad over the break up and wants to get back together and doesn’t love anyone else. Kartik and she work together in a fun sequence to try to win Sunny back for her. And then, the most unusual part of the movie for me, Nushrat foils their plan by telling Sunny that Kartik caused the break up to begin with and he only brought her back to cause another break up with Nushrat and keep Sunny for himself.
In another movie, Ishita would have known this all along. Or wouldn’t care because she was just after Sunny for his money and status. Or would react with a screaming tantrum revealing all her spoiled behavior is still there. Or, in a few movies, would end up revealing complete saintliness, how everything was always just for Sunny and making Sunny fall back in love with her.
But this movie chooses to treat her like a decent human being, not a stereotype. She learns that Kartik interfered in her relationship with Sunny and is presumably using her to break up Sunny and Nushrat, and is shocked. She thought Kartik liked her, she didn’t know why Sunny broke up with her, and most of all, she thought Sunny was being forced into this marriage and didn’t know he was truly in love. She would never have done these things if she hadn’t sincerely believed she was doing the right and moral thing, the best thing for Sunny. And then she leaves, after giving a big serious speech with no overacting, she just walks out of the film. Kartik doesn’t fall in love with her, Sunny doesn’t go running after her, that transformation and speech wasn’t for the sake of the narrative driving her towards another character, it was just for the sake of her character, giving her back her dignity and teaching Kartik in a new way the value of respecting women.
If he had learned that same lesson from Nushrat, it would have been the usual lesson of “respect the saintly good arranged marriage type of woman”. But this film says “no, respect the demanding sexy girlfriend. Because she isn’t a bad person just because she is a little shallow and a little outspoken. You are the bad person for thinking that is all she is.”
(Instead the saintly “Sweety” woman is evil, and all the usual goodnesses, up to and including making the whole family go veg, are shown to really be about control. The “good” woman is the bad one, and the “bad” woman is the good one in this film)
And so we go into the finale of the film, and the most romantic song. As Kartik sadly helps Sunny get ready to get married, knowing it will be the end of their friendship, and his entire relationship with Sunny’s family, the only family he has known since he was a little boy, because Nushrat is too selfish to let him keep even that. Just before, Alok had offered to finally get involved, to cancel the marriage himself since he had his own reasons for not trusting Nushrat and her family. But Kartik said no, it was time to stop the games and get to the heart of the matter.
And so at the alter, as he is about to hand Sunny the garland, he gets to the real true issue “if you marry her, you will lose me”. It sounds terrible, the best friend making you choose between him and the bride. But the film has set it up the whole time. Kartik isn’t just the “best friend”, he is the person who knows Sunny best, a representation of everything in his life from before the marriage. And Nushrat is just someone he has known for 6 months. And not someone he fell in love with at first sight, or even picked out for himself. He has to trust Kartik over her, the bond of an arranged engagement is so flimsy it can’t stand up to any true bond.
(Also, yes, this film is clearly a gay love story and Alok Nath is clearly playing a gay character as well. But that’s so obvious I don’t even want to bother talking about it. Beyond saying “good for you Luv! Giving this gorgeous song for a kind of love story that usually doesn’t get it”. Seriously, this exact video could be used for a PSA on the pain of the closeted homosexual and how all love is real love.)
This whole movie is about bonds and how the matter and why. Alok Nath and Virendra Saxena are best friends for life. But Virendra is also “brother” to Alok’s wife. And that is an important bond to him as well, as it is to her. And Virendra and Alok only fight when Alok tries to make Virendra choose between the two of them. That is why Nushrat is evil. Not because she is a woman, not because she wants to marry Sunny, Kartik (and the film) accept all of that. But because she wants to break this lifelong bond while the other “good” people in the film cherish those bonds. Kartik even says straight out as to why he brought back Ishita into Sunny’s life. She may have been a bad girlfriend, but she never tried to separate them, she never crossed that terrible line.
And that’s the line that wins in the end. Sunny doesn’t give a big angry speech before leaving the wedding, he gives a sad speech. About how when Kartik’s mother died, Sunny stayed by his side every minute for 3 days, so he could be there when he finally broke down and cried. And how he locked the door to keep everyone else out while Kartik cried and it was just the two of them. That is what the film has been teasing out through out. This is the strongest bond in Kartik’s life, since the death of his mother the only person who was really “his” was Sunny. And Sunny, as a purely reasonable and decent person, knows that if Kartik is willing to risk all of that to stop this marriage, then there must be something deeply wrong.
So, yeah, I liked it! This is the only Luv Ranjan movie I have seen, so I make no judgments on his other stuff (except for Akaash Vani with the amazing speech). But for me, although it wavers a bit, this particular film ultimately wins the DCIB Stamp of Feminist Non-Disapproval. I won’t exactly say “Approval”, but I’ll leave it at “Non-Disapproval”. And of course you can disagree with me if you want.
(And yes, this song is insanely catchy. Also, notice it is a duet? It’s not a man singing about how hot a woman is, it’s a man and woman singing to each other about how turned on they are right now.)