Oh dear. I know this is a movie that a lot of you really like. And I’m sorry, but I just don’t. So either you will read this review and be convinced and then I will have taken something pleasurable away from your life. Or you will read this review and disagree with me, and then we will be in a fight, and I don’t like that either. There’s really no way to win here, and I hate it! Well, I suppose I could lie and only say nice things about the movie, but that’s never gonna happen. I have to be honest and mean and make you unhappy. Shoot. Just, don’t read the review. Really, don’t, not if you love this movie and it will make you unhappy to read someone who doesn’t.
Just to get this out of the way, Vikas Bahl (the director/producer) is a rapist. But he is not an auteur. What that means is, his films do not have a distinctive stamp of his own personality and style on them. Queen has nothing in common with Shaandaar and based on the stories coming out from the sets, Vikas was very good at shoving responsibility off on others, spreading the creativity around. Good news for me as a critic, I can put a pin in the “director is a rapist” angle on the film. If anyone is the “author” of this film, I would pick out the screenwriter Anvita Dutt Guptan. She worked on this movie and Phillauri which are very very similar in their wedding setting, magical realism, and female lead. So, yaaay! No discussion in this review of anything related to the crimes of the director! Just the film itself. Which, unfortunately, I really hate.
I don’t like hating movies, I try very hard NOT to hate movies. Or people. It takes a lot of energy and gets me nothing at the end, makes me feel all ugly and gross on the inside. There are some things I like in this movie, Shahid’s performance is perfection start to finish, and he brings real emotional depth to his central monologue. The songs are great, with really inventive visuals. The Amit Trivedi score is perfect. Alia and Shahid’s chemistry is sweet together. Some of the wedding humor hits and is truly funny. And if I squint very very hard, the overall plot makes sense and has a nice range to it. But I have to squint VERY VERY HARD. Ultimately this is one of those plots where the only obstacle is the characters’ own weaknesses, and that is just not good conflict.
The biggest problem for me is the characters. Either they are treated callously as subhuman with no ability to feel pain, or they are treated as endlessly forgivable (even though their actions are the same as the others who are subhuman), or they are so perfect and without fear that they hardly seem to exist on the same level as the other characters. I can see how you could watch the film without this causing an issue, the film is built with an obvious fairy tale tone to it, and fairy tales are all about evil stepmothers who are evil for no reason, weak fathers whose daughters love them anyway, and the perfect hero who rescues you. But for me, as a viewer, it doesn’t work.
Maybe it is because the film tries to include an actual modern glaring moral message in the midst of all this fairy tale? If you are going to excuse your simple story because it is in service of teaching a lesson, than your lesson had better be very very good. And this lesson just isn’t. There are better lessons available, about illegitimacy and class and the freakin’ Sikh massacre of 1984, but instead the film ignores all of those to talk about body shaming of overweight women. And, I’m sorry, but that is NOT an issue for much of India!!!!! Make a movie about color shaming, sure, that’s relevant. But weight? Unless you are extremely westernized and part of the elite, it’s just not an issue.
I was going to say “I’m not an expert”, but actually I am, this is about popular culture and Indian popular culture is what I do. On the list of issues in India that can be addressed through changing minds by the use of popular media, body shaming women (especially for being full-figured) is about 300 on the list. I’m not wiling to sit through a shallow fairy tale version of a narrative if the whole thing is built around a very earnest call to change minds about something that no one’s minds are made up about in the first place. It’s like watching an American movie that ends with an earnest call not to be prejudiced against red-headed people. On the one hand, it’s just distractingly nonsensical. And on the other hand, it’s kind of insulting to the real issues of prejudice that are being ignored.
But Shahid’s performance is great. And the romance is sweet. And the songs are classics.
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Simple plot. Alia is the adopted daughter of Pankuj Kapoor. Pankuj also has a daughter by his wife, Sanah Kapur. Sanah is having an arranged marriage as part of a business deal to Vikas Verma. Shahid Kapoor is hired as the wedding planner at a big British estate where the wedding is being held. Vikas doesn’t want to marry Sanah because he isn’t attracted to her. Sanah feels ugly and fat because of this. Alia and Shahid try to cheer her up. Alia is falling in love with Shahid, but her father Pankuj Kapoor is jealous. It comes out that Alia is Pankuj’s love child, he left her mother behind and married the woman his family picked out to save the family fortune. At the end, at the wedding, Sanah takes off her clothes to reveal the corset her family forced her to wear for the ceremony and declares she is beautiful and perfect just as she is and doesn’t want the marriage. Pankuj and Alia and Shahid and Sanah run away together. Behind them, it is revealed that both sides of the family were counting on this wedding to save their companies, neither has any money.
I’ll start with what is kind of good. The Alia-Shahid romance has a lovely fairy tale feel to it. Both of them are insomniacs, they find each other because they are both wandering the estate in the middle of the night, and start staying up all night together. Eventually, Alia falls asleep for the first time on Shahid’s shoulder, the magical sign of true love. Alia lives in the castle, Shahid lives in the stables (literally). Shahid surprises her with horse and takes her riding early in the morning. They waltz at a grand ball. It is magical.
The Alia-Sanah relationship is nice too, loyal sisters to each other despite their differences. And the relationship between Shahid and Sanah is very unusual in a film, a nice man who cares about a young woman just because he does, not because he is responsible for her or loves her. Shahid’s character in general is interesting, and different. A wedding planner, but not humble or lowly, confident and in control. They way he is written reminds me the most of Phillauri, with its two heroes who are decent men, but not the normal heroic figures.
Shahid’s character is really remarkable, mostly because of how Shahid plays him and the little clues dropped (and then almost entirely erased by the way the film plays out) in the script. Shahid’s name is Jagjinder Joginder, which is odd and played for laughs much of the film. Also a joke is when he is caught constantly on the phone with a woman, and then it is revealed to be his lovely old grandmother. But Shahid plays the role with a strange kind of dignity and surety, with a sense of fearlessness, that feels different. And so, deep in the film, when we learn that he witnessed his parents’ murders during the Sikh massacre, it all makes sense. He has no embarrassment in expressing his love to his grandmother, he wears his mother and father’s names proudly and does not care when people smile at them, and he will fall in love with the “princess” in the castle and believe he is worthy. I want to see a film about that, about him, about a man who survived terrible trauma and what happens when he falls in love.
But, we don’t get that movie. Instead Shahid’s story takes a backseat to Pankuj’s. Pankuj is a rich man who fell in love and rather than fight for that love, he left her behind. He found the courage later to bring their love child into his home, but has not had the courage to acknowledge her. Nor has he had the courage to stand up for his legitimate child as her life is being sold away. The movie focuses on Pankuj’s trauma as he feels Alia slipping away and falling in love with Shahid. It’s a weird choice, frankly, to have us watch the romance through the eyes of the heroine’s father instead of the hero or heroine.
And then there is my biggest issue, the central plot of this marriage between a man who is not attracted to his overweight bride. Just as a thought experiment, try flipping the genders here. A woman is being forced by her family to marry a man to whom she has no attraction. His very touch makes her cringe. She is increasingly vocal about her unhappiness in being made to spend a life time with someone who does not attract her physically. At the Sangeet, she takes the opportunity to publicly express her dislike for his appearance, in hopes of forcing an end to the engagement through public humiliation. But there is no hope, her family understands her feelings but says they don’t matter and she still has to marry this man. His family is even worse, they make her feel guilty for not being attracted to him, like there is something wrong with her morally, like she should be ashamed of her feelings. She is taken to the matrimonial fire with no hope of salvation, when at the last minute the groom saves her! Declares he doesn’t want to marry someone who isn’t attracted to him, who is too blind to appreciate his handsomeness. She is saved! Only, her family has no use for her now. She runs after the groom’s family who is leaving this disastrous wedding, asking them to help her, they just laugh.
If a woman said that she was being forced into marriage with a man who had a body she just could not find attractive, it would be obviously wrong. We would have sympathy for her. If she found him unattractive for any reason at all, he is too short or too skinny or too dark or too fat, it doesn’t matter. She isn’t attracted and should not have to spend her life sharing a bed with someone who does not attract her. This movie says that Vikas is wrong, that we should shame him, because he dares to have an opinion as to who he wishes to marry.
I am overweight myself, I struggle with body image. If, for instance, I was not hired for a job because of my weight. Or if a stranger on the internet abused me for it. Or even if popular culture held up someone who looked like me and ridiculed them, I am justified in being angry and resentful. But if I am considering marriage to someone, they have a perfect right to tell me if they do not like my body. If they did, I wouldn’t try to persuade them to feel otherwise, instead I would do all I could to end the marriage myself rather than be trapped with a man who felt no attraction for me.
This movie positions the problem of a young man who is not attracted to his fiancee as a larger social issue. Like, if you just argue with him enough, he will be attracted to her. And as though the only problem with this wedding is his foolish unwillingness to see through his own body problems. That’s not the problem! The problem is that two people are being forced to marry against their will. And avoiding that truth is in fact endorsing it, is making this film culpable with the far greater sins of society.
Pankuj, the patriarch, is forgiven everything from his petty sexual jealousy of his daughter, to his uncaring for his other daughter, to his weakness in allowing this marriage of misery to go on. Even Shahid, our “perfect hero” responds simply by making Sanah feel better about herself, rather than suggesting an elopement. And worst of all, the film accepts that obviously everyone will need to be “convinced” of Sanah’s beauty, from Sanah herself, to her father, to her fiance, to the very audience of the film! That the normal reaction is “oh gross, a woman with curves”. The film is in fact normalizing that attitude by showing it as normal.
IT’S NOT NORMAL!!!!! Especially not in India. Here, I can give you objective evidence. I just searched “Alia Bhatt sexy” on youtube and also “Sonakshi Sinha sexy”. The first hit for Alia had 10 million views and was posted 6 years ago. The first hit for Sonakshi is from only 4 years ago and has THIRTY-FOUR MILLION views. Full sized Sonakshi, less famous and less popular Sonakshi, appeals to the rabid hordes of Indian fan boys looking for “sexy” OVER THREE TIMES as much as Alia. Alia, that this film suggests is the obviously “pretty” one, is not sexy to the vast majority of youtube viewers. That is how painfully stupifyingly out of touch with the reality of female attractiveness that this film is. You really want your mind blown? The first video for “Sexy Sanah Kapur” has 2.3 views. Sanah who has only been in one movie, a movie that spent most of its run time talking about how hideous she is, has 2.3 million views.
It may be fun for western women like myself to watch a song in which a full size woman’s body is celebrated, but it is just as strange in the Indian context as it would be to watch a song in an American movie in which the tastiness of McDonald’s food is celebrated. Like, yeah. We all eat it. Obviously we like it. The only people who don’t eat it are super super rich and it’s frankly insulting to have them think they are the only ones in the world to the point that we have to be “convinced” to give McDonald’s a try. The only advantage might be us thinking “well heck, if the rich think there is some reason we might need to be convinced to try McDonald’s, maybe there is something wrong with it”. In this case, the same affect can happen, the audience thinking “well heck, if for some reason they think we need to be convinced to be attracted to the body type we all find attractive, there must be something wrong with it”. And that’s not great either.
I don’t like the misdirected message, but even worse than that is the message the misdirection is covering up. This isn’t a movie about body image, this is a movie about parents controlling the romantic lives of their children, about women being disposed of and trapped and never protected by the men who are supposed to protect them. Pankuj was forced into a marriage and left behind his pregnant girlfriend to an early death. His wife was trapped in a marriage with a man who hated and feared her. And now Sanah and Vikas are being forced into that same kind of marriage. And meanwhile Pankuj thinks he has the right to forbid his other daughter Alia from any kind of marriage at all, keep her as his perfect virginal spinster companion. And the well-spring of all this malfunction is Pankuj, the cowardly man who wouldn’t stand up to his mother and stay with his girlfriend, who won’t stand up to his wife or mother again on behalf of his daughter, but will play the authoritarian bully over poor servant Shahid. And the film never calls him to account for it! I was waiting and waiting for the moment when he would stand up and take responsibility for his own failures as a father and husband and person. And it never really happened. Instead that responsibility was shoved off on Sanah, she is the one who gave the big speech, with the support of Shahid and Alia, Pankuj was just sort of there.
Somehow this plot about forced marriage is resolved by the children being forced into it standing up for themselves and rescuing their parents. Not with the woman being offered a choice and given the power, but with her taking the power and responsibility for herself, it’s still all on her, if Sanah hadn’t stood up for herself she would have been married off as punishment for her “cowardice”. And somehow the argument is that some amorphous idea of body image is the culprit, if only Sanah had better self-esteem she wouldn’t be in this mess, it is up to her to save herself. If only girls raised their hands more in school, they would get better grades. If only women asked for raises, they would get paid more. If only women reported sexual harassment, it wouldn’t happen. If only women fought back, they wouldn’t be raped. Oh look, I came back to Vikas Bahl after all.
(again, sorry! I know a lot of you like this movie! I respect your opinion, but this is mine)