Well, “flop”. It didn’t get a super good, or a super bad, reaction. But it’s the first Varun film to fall into that category, an actual flop instead of a “critically acclaimed but no one appreciated it”.
This is a movie that isn’t quite sure which story it wants to tell, the rise of the humble Indian craftsman or the love story of a man and his wife. The best parts are when the two stories come together, when we see how the promise of a new kind of industry allows for a greater closeness between husband and wife, instead of the treadmill of wage labor outside the home and constant work inside the home. But then there are other parts that just don’t quite make sense, the love story skated past and rearranged in order to make sense for the economic story, or the economic story brushed through so we can enjoy the personal.
It’s a wobbly tale in some ways, but it is better put together than Shakat Katariya’s last film Dum Laage Ke Haisha. That was a wonderful original film, a breath of fresh air, but it wobbled a bit at the end, didn’t know where it wanted to go or why. This film wobbles in the same way, but much less. The timeline is extremely rushed, things just sort of magically work out over a song, relationships healed and so on, and then the happy ending arrives with little connection to what went before. And it adds on the nice soft social message that sells so well, makes you feel good for going to a movie instead of like you are wasting your time.
That’s important, because this is a Yash Raj film with Varun Dhawan and Anushka Sharma. It sounds like the kind of big budget low imagination movie that the discerning audience would avoid, so you want to lean heavily on anything high minded. But on the other hand, you do want to make money so you also need to make sure it is a little bit entertaining. This is the perfect in between, soft social message, a little humor, a little romance, a few songs.
What would have completely destroyed this film is if Varun couldn’t sell his role. Anushka was more of a sure bet, she is a far more experienced actor than Varun for one thing, and for another the village wife type is something she has done before. But Varun was trying something very different, a poor village type boy living on the outskirts of Delhi. He’d done the Bihari accent and all that for Badrinath, but that was as the spoiled son of a rich man. This is different. And he handled it perfectly. Comfortable, happy, smiling young man, with the exuberance of youth, but also the awareness of the many worries and problems of his situation. And nice, that’s the biggest thing you see about him, always nice. He helps carry buckets of water around the home, he takes care of his mother, he wants to get to know his wife, he is a nice nice man. Late in the film Anushka has a speech singing praises of him, and that is what she talks about. Not brilliance, not talent, but that he is the kind of man who will pass up the bus and ride his bike instead in order to save money to buy his father paan. And we believe that Varun is that man, at least I believed it. He isn’t cocky, he isn’t proud, he isn’t demanding, he is just a nice quiet little man who dreams of a nice quiet little life.
The rest of the cast is very good as well, Varun’s mother and father especially, Raghubir Yadav and Yamini Das. But they aren’t big names, which is appropriate. This is a movie about two people, Varun and Anushka, and it is right that everyone else kind of fades into the background behind them, we don’t want a big array of co-stars and characters, we just want to see them and who they are together.
That’s where the economics and love story meet. It is only when needle and thread, man and wife, can come together that the country can flourish. The corporations, the entrenched powers, they seek to divide. It is the groups together that are the greatest strength of the country and of the family relationships.
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Whole movie in two paragraphs:
Varun lives in a small house on the outskirts of Delhi with his father, mother, and new wife Anushka. He works at a sewing machine store, opening it every day and cleaning and bringing tea for the owner and so on. His older brother married into a better off family and lives with his wife’s family now but they visit often. Varun and Anushka never speak, because she is always rushing to help his mother in the kitchen and he is always rushing to work. And then one day she asks him to quite his job and work for himself instead, using his skills. He borrows the neighbor’s sewing machine and sets up in the courtyard of the neighborhood. Anushka tries to help him find costumers by talking to the other storekeepers and asking them to recommend him. But then his mother falls ill, they need money for the hospital. Just when things look worst, Varun and Anushka work together to make a hospital dress for his mother and it is so popular among the patients that they quickly get more orders for it. They spend a day traveling together to buy the raw materials, only to return and learn the neighbor took back the sewing machine. In desperation, they ride Varun’s bike many kilometers to where the government is giving away free sewing machines if you can prove you know how to use them. Varun injured his foot but he and Anushka work together to make the treadle work and get their machine. INTERVAL
They deliver the dresses the next day and everyone is happy. Only, the hospital bill is enormous, they will never be able to pay it. They call on the brother-in-law who recommended the hospital, he talks to the bursar and gets him to lower the bill. But also tells them that the hospital wants to take Varun’s design for his mother and make it themselves. Varun and Anushka go talk to the clothes factory, run by Pooja Sarup, an American trained fashion designer with a clothing business father. She offers to buy their design and hire them, putting it that she is doing them a favor because she could easily just steal the design. Varun and Anushka don’t want to do it, but take the jobs anyway to help with the medical bills. The final straw is when Varun gets another hospital bill and sees the mark up being charged to the patients for the simple garments. He goes back to work and makes a big fuss and is thrown out. Back home he fights with his brother over it. And then with Anushka. Anushka goes back to the factory and Pooja tries to talk her around, but Anushka realizes that Varun was right and leaves. And they come up with a new plan, Pooja is applying for a contest, they will apply for it as well. They make their own designs, in secret while Varun’s disapproving parents aren’t looking, and pass the initial round. For the next, they will have to actually make a line of clothing. Varun and Anushka ask Varun’s father for help, promising that it will just be one month and they have to try. They bring together all the other out of work artisans of the neighborhood and find a place to work and weave and sew and make everything from scratch. At the final fashion show of the contest, it is the common local people of the neighborhood, including Varun’s brother and his wife and small son and his parents, who act as their models. They receive a standing ovation, but while nervously waiting for the results to be announced, are casually told by two of the judges that of course they won’t be winning. They go out to wait by the bus stop, but Varun’s father tells him he doesn’t care, he got his self-respect back, watching his son work for himself, and he doesn’t care if he has to keep working the rest of his life, Varun should follow his dreams. And then they learn that they won the contest after all, and over the end credits we see all the success they achieved in life after that, special shop through Amazon and so on.
This movie doesn’t so much have a second half problem as a first half strength. The first half is just so strong, letting us see both the subtle price of wage labor and how social structures reproduce themselves, and letting us see the subtle difficulties of this young marriage. And both of those stories are resolved when they get the sewing machine.
But then the second half loses it’s way. Instead of staying grounded with this couple that just needed a sewing machine, it goes off to clothes factories and hospital fraud and all sorts of other things and then ends up with this ridiculous amount of success, instead of the more modest dreams they had at the start. It would have felt more complete, to me, if they had gotten the sewing machine and then struggled to pay for space for a shop, and then maybe fought because Varun was sidelining Anushka again as he became (moderately) more successful. This whole idea of them winning some kind of fashion competition and now their whole lives are made, that just felt ridiculous.
It also felt a little ridiculous that the culmination of the romance was a chaste kiss on the forehead. One of the people I watched this with pointed out that Anushka has just gotten married after all, maybe a chaste kiss on the forehead is all she is up for. But I think even with those restrictions, they could have given the audience a little more.
It’s a strange sort of a love story. The initial idea is good, that a hard working young couple never has the time to be together, he is rushing off for his long early morning commute and long day at work, she is rushing around making breakfast and then dinner, and so on. But at a certain point you start to wonder, do they sleep together? Like, literally sleep together? Do they never talk at night? Or in the early morning? You can hold on to this idea of a couple who are two busy to know each other right at the start of the film, we don’t know how long they have been married, maybe it was only two weeks, then it is all believable. But the film covers several months at least and as it goes on, they are spending all day every day together. Surely by now they know each other well enough to do a lot more than hold hands. And surely by now, what with the uneven employment, they can find the time to do more than hold hands.
Post-interval, I would expect for their to be a love song that shows they are really together-together. And then the conflict could be them fighting after coming to this new understanding. But instead they are still living separate lives and never talking things out? It’s just odd.
Oh, and the second half is where the film completely loses it’s way in terms of the reality of what can be accomplished by our characters. In the first half, it is established that Varun’s grandfather was a skilled tailor/designer/local craftsman. He taught Varun how to sew and we see Varun casually altering a sari blouse, fixing a torn shirt, and so on. When it comes time to design his mother’s hospital gown, it is completely believable, a simple sheath with little lace accents and so on sewn onto it. Varun has the skills and talent to make clothing to order, a nice little ability.
But then in the second half, suddenly he is designing clothes, not just simple alterations to a sheath, but elaborate multi-layered things. I’m a sewer myself, and I know there is a big difference between sewing on a few lace accents to a basic pattern and inventing capes and contrasting color blocks and all kinds of things sewn right into the pattern. And then it gets even more ridiculous, when they open up their workshop and suddenly they are weaving and dyeing and all kinds of things. You can argue that it is the other artisans in their area who are doing it, but then we see Varun supervising, so that still doesn’t make sense.
But I can forgive the film a lot because the two central arguments about marriage and economics are so strong. The argument for marriage is simple, that a husband and wife should get a chance to be together, should not be separated by their labor but should work together shoulder to shoulder. The economic one is a little more complex, showing the way that all sorts of factors work to keep those at a lower economic level down at that level.
Varun and his family aren’t poor. But they also aren’t rich, and it will be very hard for them ever to become it. They make just enough money by working hard all day to be able to survive and work again the next day. Even something as simple as a sewing machine is impossible for them, they would never be able to save up the money to buy it, because money goes out as soon as it comes in. It’s heart surgery for Varun’s mother in this movie, but we can easily imagine a repair to the roof, Varun’s wedding expenses, and so on and so on, all the other ways that any little money they save gets swallowed up. And in order to make money, to branch out and try something new, you need to have a little bit of money already to support you on your way.
Where do you get that? Well, there are the government schemes. But we see the challenges of that here, Varun and Anushka have to travel for miles, and then wait and wait, and finally pass a test before they get their machine. And they only know about this option because of the neighbor who cheats the system and gets the machines only so he can sell them for profit in the city, another barrier for the poor but honest folks, other people are taking the machines before they can get them in order to sell them.
And there is the possibility of a loan or other business opportunity. Which has a different set of challenges. Varun and Anushka wouldn’t even know about this contest if it weren’t for overhearing Pooja. She has the kind of contacts and knowledge that let her know about these things, while poor but talented Varun and Anushka are cut off from that knowledge. And when they make their presentation, their poor English and old-fashioned clothing and so on sets them apart from the judges. Finally, at the competition, they believe they have lost because the judges tell them they would never win as they could clearly not manage it if they did.
That’s the problem, just like needing money in order to make money, you need success in order to make success. Before the bank will give you a loan, or the foundation a grant, or the company a contract, you have to be smooth and confident and English speaking and just like them. Otherwise, you are invisible.
Or, as this film says at the end, NOT! After all that struggle and work, in the end virtue is rewarded and success lands in their lap. The system works, is what it is saying. And, fine, it gives us our super-happy ending which is just what I wanted, but it also feels a bit unfaithful to the film that went before and these very real characters that went before. To have the rich folks wave a magic wand and give them everything they could ever want.
(And then we don’t even get this end credits song! On the other hand, this song video/promo is brilliant and kind of makes me love Varun)