Friday Classic: Dream Girl, Aren’t Gender Roles Funny?

Happy Friday! Fair warning, I watched this movie late last night as I was coming down with a mild cold. So I may not have processed everything fully, or correctly. Fix my mistakes in the comments! And forgive my wandering thoughts!

Is it me, or does Ayushmann just get younger looking with every film? It’s weird, he’s 35 in real life and 8 years ago in his first movie he played someone in his late 20s. And now he is playing people in their early twenties. And it’s believable! It’s like he discovered the Dev Anand machine of eternal youth. Come to think of it, Dev died in 2011 right before Ayushmann made it big in Hindi film. Hmmm.

Image result for dream girl poster

That was a random start, but I feel kind of random about this movie. There are some great comic set pieces, especially in the second half. It is the most Hrishikesh Mukherjee feeling of all the Ayushmann comedies so far, less about character comedy and more farcical. But farce is random, it’s not about a cohesive narrative, or an overall theme, it’s just funny bit after funny bit. Which makes it very hard to review.

Ayushmann is good, although he is surprisingly more the “straight man” than the comic lead in this part. Annu Kapoor, Nidhi Bisht, and Vijay Raaz are easily funnier than him. Poor Nushrat Bhuracha has even less to do than Ayushmann, as the straight man’s heroine.

I just looked up the director and he came from TV sketch comedy, which kind of makes sense. The characters in this are just sketched in types, the comedy is in little 5 minute bursts, and the film really shines when it leans into that. The last 40 minutes when everything boils over and all the character types run into each other is perfection. The other hour plus isn’t bad, but it isn’t the laugh fest that the ending is.

I guess that’s another way it is Mukherjee-esk. The best comedy is the elaborate puzzle piece like comedy, where it all somehow fits together and you laugh as you realize how one piece matches another. We need to get all the pieces laid out on the board in the first half, as efficiently as possible, so we can start putting them together in this half. This movie does that, romance and new job and family issues and so on all put out, in a mildly amusing way. And then shaken up and put together fresh in a hilarious way.

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It’s an even simpler set-up than I expected. Ayushmann Khurrana goes for a job interview and learns it is actually for a call centre for lonely men. He is hired by putting on a female voice. He becomes their most popular caller, but runs into trouble when some of his regulars start to get serious and he has to come up with plots to dissuade them.

There is a small theme here. Men tend to put their fantasies on to women, that’s how businesses like the call centers thrive. The explicit message (conveyed through one of those boring end of film speeches) is about loneliness and an inability to reach out to the people in real life. Sure, that’s there, but the real message is about fantasies. Ayushmann’s callers convince themselves that Ayushmann truly loves them, that they have an actual connection. Ayushmann is the best caller because he is the best at transforming himself into that fantasy in a way that makes them truly believe it.

Here’s what I’m thinking about with all this. Ayushmann is a man working at a call center, but most of the comedy is not related to that. Which, good on the film makers! There is minimal to none of “ha ha, a man pretending to be a woman is innately funny”. The comedy comes because the fantasy he has created at the call center has so completely tricked his callers that they believe it to be real. It would be equally comic if he was a middle-aged woman, or just an outspoken modern woman (instead of the timid sweetheart he plays over the phone). The comedy is in how he can so easily make people believe in something that doesn’t exist, and how determined they are to keep believing no matter how much he tries to explain.

So, why is Ayushmann a man? The best I can come up with is that women know better. A woman wouldn’t actually promise to marry a man, or imply they have true love, the way Ayushmann blithely does. He has been dropped into a world that he can quickly master (because he knows just what men want to hear), but without understanding the dangers of it.

The callers who end up as his regulars are perfectly selected for optimal society based comedy. There is Raj Bhansali as the poser young guy with his posse of friends, Abhishek Banerjee as the proudly “brahmachari” young landowner, Vijaay Raaz as the failed poet police constable with the unhappy marriage, Nidhi Bisht as the angry conflicted lesbian, and Annu Kapoor as the lonely old widower. These aren’t people with no place in society, and no hope of a connection. They are people who aren’t willing to make the effort for a real difficult connection. Or to understand and appreciate what they have.

I’ll put it another way. The film argues in that final speech that people have stopped knowing how to connect. I would say that the rest of the movie shows that people can connect perfectly well, they have just stopped being willing to settle for a “real” connection. Nidhi is introduced angrily attacking the boyfriend of a co-worker, turning off both the boyfriend and the co-worker. If she had acted differently, let other people see herself the way she opened up to Ayushmann over the phone, that co-worker could have become a friend. Mahinder is proud of being Brahmachari and devoted to his cows. If he was willing to give up that social status and pride, he could have reached out and found a wife without needing to go over the phone. Or simply made a closer connection with his sister and grandmother who still live with him. Raj Bhansali is trapped in his tough guy pose, only lets his softness show over the phone instead of to his friends or his mother. Vijaay Raaz chooses to drink and dream instead of going home and paying attention to his wife. And Annu Kapoor loses himself in his fantasy woman instead of seeing his son in front of him.

Annu Kapoor’s twist is the cleverest one in the film. The audience thinks we know everything. We see how Ayushmann is so confident in his success at work, we see how he is flirting with the local cop and his future brother-in-law without knowing it, and so on. And then halfway through the film, we learn at the same time as Ayushmann that one of his clients is HIS OWN FATHER!!!!

This is shocking because Ayushmann is flirting with his father, but also because it makes him see that the men he is talking to don’t actually have empty lives. His father is a good man, just the night before Ayushmann was talking about how much he loved him. His father built up this fantasy because he doesn’t see what he already has in front of him. Ayushmann determines he has to fix this whole problem by interfering in the “real” lives of his callers.

And this is when we get into the cascading amazing comedy. We get to see Ayushmann interacting with each of his callers, using his knowledge of them to hit their weakest points, then the callers interacting with each other, finally tracking back to Ayushmann’s “real” life in a finale glorious chaos. This is the very best kind of farce, where the lies become so numerous that the truth itself just looks like another lie and “truth” loses meaning.

Even better, in the midst of all this insanity, we get to see Ayushmann bring the woman he loves, Nushrat, into the insanity with him. That’s the part that can make a farce romantic. When two people reach for each other in the midst of swirling craziness, whether it is comic farce or gangster danger or anything else, that’s romantic. Ayushmann is tracked down in “reality” and his life becomes crazy, with different people thinking he is a boyfriend, a brother, and a husband of his imaginary persona “Pooja”. And he reacts by taking Nushrat with him to the call center where it all began and telling her his simple truth, he did it for the money to help his father. That’s the real culmination of the film, two people reaching out directly and telling each other the truth face to face.

And then we have the other culmination, as Ayushmann is playing a woman in a Radha-Krishna play, the various callers come after him and he finally reveals who he actually is.

The Radha-Krishna play, and the backstory of Ayushmann as a regular at the religious performances, that adds another nice little touch to the farce. Everyone is horrified and surprised at the idea of Ayushmann pretending to be a woman at the call centre. And yet slippage between male and female are an ancient part of Indian culture. Everyone accepts Ayushmann as “Sita Ma” as a performer, but are shocked at the idea of him as a woman over the phone.

And all of this, it’s funny! People are funny, it’s funny when they delude themselves into believing falsehoods, it’s funny when they are blind to their own inconsistencies, it’s funny when their fantasies come in conflict with each other. The beauty of this movie is that it manages to make all of this funny for us, instead of tragic. And funny without being cruel. We laugh, but we like them. We sympathize with them. The world is a silly place, people are silly, but we still love them.

9 thoughts on “Friday Classic: Dream Girl, Aren’t Gender Roles Funny?

  1. I saw this when it was in the theaters and really enjoyed it, as did the actual desis in the theater (and there were quite a few, all folks in their 20s). Vijay Raaz is probably my current favorite character actor; he was fantastic in this, as in Gully Boy.

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    • I love Vijay Raaz! He got so much buzz after Monsoon Wedding, and then kind of disappeared into small roles, and now is popping up again. If you haven’t seen Made in Heaven, he also has an amazing role in that.

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  2. I really liked the first half, but when the Muslim jokes started flying in the second half I got really uncomfortable. It is like I have now learned Indian stereotypes about Muslims. I guess they all have long names and 10 siblings. They paint their houses green, eat goat and dye their hair red. These are not western stereotypes. And perhaps because they aren’t stereotypes I share, it was more disturbing than funny. The cracks about the man-hating funny boss were funny at first, largely because the actress was so likable, but at the end it started to make me uncomfortable as well. I’m conflicted about this film.

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    • For me, and this is just me, I didn’t mind the Muslim jokes. To me they felt more like “we are making fun of the stupid stereotyped way other people see Muslims” more than “we are actually buying into the stereotypes”. Especially since they were such soft stereotypes, it’s not like his Dad was turning himself into a gangster or a terrorist or something, just painting things green and going by “Abba”.

      Kind of in the same family, although not nearly as good, as Anil Kapoor’s over the top use of Urdu in the dinner scene in ELKDTAL. The joke isn’t that Urdu is innately funny, but that Anil is being ridiculous with how he is acting and Rajkummar (the actual Muslim) is totally unlike his stereotype.

      On the other hand, I felt the same way about the man-hating boss character. She was so clearly an unhappy Lesbian, and the movie stuck with “man did her wrong, now she hates them” as a narrative instead. That was weird.

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      • The truth is I saw her as someone who was willing to try to any form of love as what she had tried hadn’t worked. She might have been a lesbian, or bisexual, or she might have been heterosexual, but she saw she was unhappy and was willing to try new things to find the happiness she craved. Ultimately a brave character. And the fact that her first attempt at finding this love was through the phone, thus nonphysical, makes a lot of sense.

        Not knowing the language means I miss a lot of the jokes. I can’t tell the difference between Urdu and Hindi. I am actually proud of myself when I can tell that a video you post is Tamil or Telugu and not Hindi just by listening to the words.

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        • Hey, you caught the Muslim stereotypes! That’s the kind of thing that took me years to catch when I started watching. You are doing great.

          Maybe what bothered me about Nidhi is that she was the one character who I legitimately understood why she had to reach out through the phone? The kid was an idiot who needed to grow up, Mahinder needed to be brave enough to stop the “I’m happy as a perfect brahmachari” act, Annu Kapoor needed to appreciate his son and the life he had, and Vijay Raaz needed to appreciate his wife. But Nidhi really didn’t seem to have anyone in her life or the tools to figure out how to find someone. She was kind of redeemed at the end, at least more than the other callers, by actually tracking down the “real” Pooja and saving Ayushmann. But then we didn’t get a follow up on that! I wanted to see her and the “real” Pooja have a friendship, or just some kind of human warmth reaching out to her.

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  3. I’m with Genevieve. The stereotyping was awful. Angry lesbian beats up men. The father going whole hog on being Muslim. It was really bad. And I also got really uncomfortable with all these men refusing to accept Ayushmann’s no because they thought he was a woman which means they were all actively sexually harassing a sex worker. The kid’s attempted suicide played for laughs was also bad. I started out laughing but by the end I hated everyone in the movie.

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  4. To me, one of my favorite things about the movie was how wonderfully phone sex workers were portrayed throughout the movie. When Abhishek Banerjee’s grandma tries to shame him about talking to a sex worker, he defends her right away, then the entire family talks to her like a normal human being. Also, while Nushrat is angry at Ayushmann because she thinks he is cheating on her and lying to her, when she finds out what he does for a living, she doesn’t care. Same with the father when he finds out.

    Also, to me, the whole joke is making fun of the way stupid stereotypes are portrayed in movies when it comes to the being Muslim or being a young brat in love. They are trying to show OTT displays of stereotypes to display how foolish they are. It is apparent because when Annu actually doesn’t want to marry “Pooja” because she might be Muslim, Ayushmann shows him the folly of his reasoning. Same with the kid who tried to kill himself – the whole point it to show how ridiculous it is when movies show people talk about killing themselves to display their love. I think with Nidhi it got a bit confusing. I think they were trying to make fun of why successful women, who smoke and drink are shown as evil women who hate men. But to me, she is very clearly gay and I couldn’t tell if that was just to portray another quality of a woman who does not “conform” to the expectations of Indian society. I do wish they had followed through on that storyline.

    To me, this theme is also woven throughout the film with Hindi film references and music. When Ayushman shakes his head like Dev Anand, when Annu Kapoor opens his wallet and there is a picture of Hema (the original Dream Girl), when Annu Kapoor dresses like SRK to show he’s young and cool. Same with the songs: Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Baby Doll, Tadap Tadap Ke are so cleverly used throughout!

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    • Yes, that is how I saw it! Not buying into the fantasies, but making fun of them. Whether it was Muslim stereotypes or forbidden love or anything else. And the phone sex concept wasn’t used for laughs on its own, or for tragedy really, just a fact of life.

      On Fri, Jan 10, 2020 at 4:59 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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