Woo-hoo! A new Humpty Sharma review! For those of you who really really love this movie. Or at least tolerate those of us who really really love this movie.
Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania came out in The Past of 6 years ago, 2014. Back then Alia and Varun were hot new promising actors, and Shashank Khaitan was the hot new promising director. And Karan Johar was the king of the industry who could do no wrong. Humpty Sharma seemed like the start of a grand career for the two leads and the director, and a continuation of a perfect career for the producer. A wonderful film, but clearly just the start of a whole series of wonderfulness.
And now it is 6 years later. Turns out, Humpty Sharma was more special than we thought. Karan has made plenty of mistakes since then, Alia and Varun have both put in bad performances, and Shashank struggled to perfect his next few scripts. Humpty Sharma wasn’t just the coming together of multiple great talents, it was something a little extra and beyond those talents, something they wouldn’t quite accomplish again.
It all starts with the script. Karan in his memoir talks about finding it. That alone is important, Karan doesn’t discuss ever film he produced in his memoir. The fact that he remembers so clearly the moment he first read it, and feels that moment worthy of inclusion in the memoir, says that this was something special. Karan has a team at Dharma to read through scripts and decide what to pass on to him. And then he reads through what they passed up. He picked up Shashank’s script because the title was so odd, and immediately was captured with the way it updated rom-coms, specifically the DDLJ format, for a new era.
Humpty Sharma is a truly brilliant script. In the structure, the way it takes the time it takes to introduce each character and situation before slowly building on more and more conflict and complications on the way to the final obstacle and conclusion. But also in the little things, the decision to make the heroine’s parents a love match across caste and religion, the decision to have the hero’s friends come with him on his love quest, the touch of the hero and the heroine’s father sharing secret cigarettes. I didn’t fully appreciate Humpty until I saw Badrinath, Shashank’s follow up film. Badrinath rushed things, forget characters, had a plot that mostly worked but was missing in the little details (I needed more on the hero’s older brother and sister-in-law, clarity on why the heroine wanted to be an air hostess, and so on and so forth). Most of all it didn’t have those unforgettable touches that Humpty Sharma was filled with, it was all almost perfect but not quite. Having the hero stay with the heroine and do her housework was nice, but there wasn’t quite enough of it, and it never had a moment quite as perfect as the hero and father sharing cigarettes in Humpty Sharma.
In the same way, the performances at the center of Humpty Sharma are something special. The way Alia manages to layer on a girl who doesn’t care on top of a girl who does care without going over the top in either direction, the way Varun layers the childish guy who cares too much on top of the guy who is a little afraid of how deeply he cares, I thought they were the kind of brilliant performances that would start brilliant careers. But then in Badrinath, it wasn’t quite as perfect and seamless and invisible into the characters. And in Kalank, these same young actors were given far deeper and juicier roles and couldn’t manage to pull them off. I’m not saying Varun and Alia got worse, or lazier, or anything. Just that something magical happened on the set of Humpty that brought their acting up to a level they may not reach again.
I go back to Humpty now and it feels like this magical little bubble that somehow created something beyond the sum of its parts. Oh and also, it really is the kind of title that just leaps out at you. That’s still true.
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Humpty Sharma is structured around DDLJ, but also not. Our heroine is a young engaged woman with a protective father who takes one month off for an adventure before her marriage. During her adventure, she meets a boy and fights with him and makes up and makes friends and realizes just before she has to go home that she is in love. She returns home anyway, because she is dutiful to her family, but he follows. He inserts himself into her wedding preparations and slowly wins over her family to his side, culminating in her father as the last hold out. It looks like her father won’t give in, and she won’t rebel, but at the last second the father changes his mind and gives his blessing and the two are united.
The challenge is to take that structure, and make it fit for a totally new group of characters, ones who have the same plot function as in the original but new backstories, motivations, personalities, habits, hobbies, EVERYTHING! It’s like being given a house that is fully filled with bedrooms and kitchen and living room and being told that you have to do it over with the same number of bedrooms and so on, but you have to put them all in different places. It is so much easier to just start fresh with a new bedroom.
Shashank started by moving the story entirely to India. DDLJ is about NRIs, that is what made it different right from the start. This time it is firmly within India, the adventure is in Delhi and the wedding is in small town India. And then he had to figure out why a modern young Indian girl would want an arranged marriage. He came up with a whole new backstory for the heroine, an older sister with a failed marriage which has strained the family and made her determined to give them the perfect happy wedding. For the hero, instead of an overly mean and overly smart modern young man, he created a flirt who was easy going and a soft mark. Because that is who could get under the defenses of his new modern tough heroine determined not to feel.
And then the dynamic he had to keep, that our heroine who was so sure her father knew best for her would discover there was another man she could come to rely on, and a potential different future for her from what her father had chosen. That is the reality DDLJ was getting at, and that is what Shashank wanted to show too. In Indian society, who a woman marries is a choice for what her whole life will be like, not just who she marries. The journey of the heroine in the two films is not simply a “who does she love” question, it is a “what life does she want” question. She needs to experience life under the protection and guidance of the hero before she is able to fearlessly break free of her father and know she will be safe. So Shashank came up with a situation where a modern Indian girl would be a little bit scared and unsure and need help, but not so scared and unsure that she was desperate. Alia’s friend is being blackmailed by an old boyfriend, she goes to Varun for help figuring out how to stop it. She wants to be part of the solution and she fully understands the situation, it’s not all terrifying and foreign to her, but it is just scary enough that she needs to rely on Varun.
And the second dynamic he had to keep, that our hero would follow the heroine and win over her family. The heroine considered the hero’s whole life before deciding she was in love, because it’s a choice for her whole life. But the hero is showing that he wants all of the heroine, not just her but her background and her family. He respects all of it and he has no pride, no ego, he is willing to do whatever they want. In the original, Shahrukh showed that by embedding himself within the female spaces, talking in the kitchen, in the children’s games, in the sari shopping. In this film, Varun shows it by joining the servant spaces. He is not an honored guest, he sleeps on the terrace and works in the kitchen. He is willing to be humiliated, injured, worked to death, if it will win over Alia’s family. In the first half, the heroine reluctantly gives over her power to the hero because she has no other choice and then learns to trust and love him. In the second half, the hero voluntarily gives up all his power to the heroine’s family to show how much he loves her and trusts that their love will win out.
Now, let’s talk about sex! The interval is where everything flips, the heroine gives up her final resistance to the hero, which leads him to follow her and sacrifice himself before her and her family. In DDLJ, Kajol just left behind a bell. Her character was so repressed that that small gesture was enough to tell Shahrukh everything. But Shashank created a different heroine, one who was fearless and confident, and who would grab love where she found it. So Alia “gives” Varun sex to show how much she loves him.
Blech, sounds horrible like that, doesn’t it? For the plot, that is how it works, sex tells Varun “I love you” and so he follows her and gives up all his power to her just as she gave it to him. But for the characters, there is more to it. Alia loves Varun, and trusts Varun, and that is why she wants to have sex with him. By this point in the film, we know her so well that we don’t need to have that said explicitly. We see how she tries to pretend she is stronger and less feeling than she is, how she has decided to hide her own feelings in order to please her family, and we understand that she was surprised to feel so much for Varun, and to feel so safe with him. That Varun was the person she wanted to be her first, for herself, someone she knew and who knew her and she could feel safe with. And we understand the other half, that Alia is someone who is honorable and believes in her duty to her family. For her to make the selfish choice and have sex with Varun instead of the dutiful choice and remain faithful to her fiance says that she really really wanted sex with him. Which means she really really wanted him, all of him. And that is what Varun understood. He had sex with her because it was what she wanted, and she wanted it because she loved him very very much.
That’s what sex should be, always. Okay, scratch that, what it should be in a love story. Something a couple does because they love each other very very much. They desire each other, because they love each other, not the other way around. Other movies use sex as a plot device, a misunderstanding, even a punchline. But the best love stories use it as a sign of real true deep love. Jab Harry Met Sejal, Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna, all the way back to Aradhana, the couples weren’t attracted to each other and then fell in love, they fell in love and because of that became attracted to each other. Humpty Sharma starts out with a boy and girl role-playing what they think sex should be like, him flirting and her retreating, but it is empty and meaningless. When they get to know each other, when they stop pretending, that is when they fall in love with the real person. And falling in love with the real person makes them want to be together, fully together, in a way as unlike that early flirtation as an electric light is unlike the sun.
So, watch Humpty Sharma! To see a love story that puts all other recent romances in the shade.