I don’t think I’ve ever seen a romantic movie from India quite like Dum Laga Ke Haisha. That’s not to say that it’s a blazingly original piece of work, because it is far from that. There is much in here that is easily predictable and it follows such a simplistic storyline that being surprised by what goes on in the story is literally impossible.
The main crux of this tale of romance is that it centers around an arranged marriage, and in which, the girl happens to be overweight. Its easy to pin this movie, as so many people have, as a film which debunks the old Bollywood trend of casting skinny, light skinned, attractive women as love interests. A movie who’s main social message is that “size doesn’t matter”. Rather, I would say that this movie brings to the forefront that looks do matter, and that it’s a barrier that many of us must be able to cope with and carry ourselves across without being offended or meaning to offend. Is it wrong for Prem, the main male protagonist (played by a reliable Ayushman Khurrana), to feel bitter that he is being forced into an arranged marriage with a girl he doesn’t find attractive? Of course not, much of what love entails comes certainly from physical attractiveness, it is a fact of life. But beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and had Prem or some other guy chosen to be in relationship with and get married to Sandhya, the main female protagonist (wonderfully portrayed with humility and surprising natural charm by newcomer Bhumi Pednekar), then there wouldn’t be an issue of looks at all.
Rather, what Dum Laga Ke Haisha’s most important attribute happens to be, is that it treats its overweight and well educated modern female character as a well-adjusted human being… much more well-adjusted than her male counterpart. Too many times we have seen weight be an issue for women in film, and that it must either be ridiculed, or rebelliously tackled. In the era of Amy Schumer, a strong independent woman per Hollywood movies, must now also be an ‘in-your-face’ one. A well-educated woman must now also be one who is constantly seen ‘taking down’ the men who assume she is helpless and naïve. It’s a manner in which cinema has tried to rebuke the decades of misogyny that has encapsulated a male dominated form of storytelling. They’re not wrong to do it, but even when it tries to empower women, cinema seems to slip up anyway because it treats them as caricatures. Instead of timid helpless damsels in distress, these “strong female characters” are essentially men in women’s clothing and they harken to preach to others what women should be. Isn’t that counter-productive?
Sharat Katariya on the other hand, manages to make the lead female in Dum Laga Ke Haisha, Sandhya, an “every-woman”, a girl in India who is only longing for companionship but doesn’t necessarily need a man. She’s a girl who is okay with the traditional practice of having her parents help her find a suitable groom, but doesn’t necessarily need them to find one for her. Who enjoys the idea of having a husband and starting a family, but is still well-educated with hundreds of career opportunities waiting at her doorstep so she doesn’t need to commit herself to Prem and the possibility of children. Rather, its what she wants. That is feminism in cinema… a female protagonist who creates decisions on her own and is capable of changing and turning tables for herself and others as she pleases because she is the one who is adjusted well enough to take control of the situation. Sandhya is grounded, and despite her weight which is seen as a taboo and black mark against her in our materialistic society, she never complains about it, or cries over it, or feels sorry for herself about how she looks. We see her posing in front a mirror, dancing and smiling at parties and weddings, and even when surrounded by skinny fit women, she doesn’t see herself as out of place. While Prem is floundering to understand who he is, constantly feeling embarrassed and insecure because of his poor education and social status, eventually losing the will to live, Sandhya remains a symbol of someone who knows exactly who she is and her self-worth is undiminished. Only when Prem embarrasses her about her weight in front of the whole community do we see Sandhya cry for the first time, but even then her immediate reaction is to slap Prem, because it is not her weight which makes her sad, it is the viciousness of her husband, the complete jealousy he has for her self-worth and confidence, that he must bring her down to his level to feel better, that she is angered and devastated by.
For maybe the first time in Indian romantic film, we are seeing a female character who is in complete control of her own situation, that each choice made by her is a manifest of her own emotions and her own life choices, and that she is comfortable with all of them. Even when Prem shuts her down time and again, mistaking her helping him with English as her boasting about her own education, she doesn’t back away and keep shut. She slyly jabs at him while still lifting him up to keep trying to do better for himself, letting him know that her education is not just resulting in book smarts, but wit and insightfulness as well. When her mother scolds her for being too educated and “bold” for a woman in Indian society, she never belittles her for her old-world, patriarchal views. Instead, she listens to her mother and offers to take care of the situation herself. This isn’t a female protagonist who’s strong stature in society culminates in vengeful holier-than-thou attitude. Sandhya is a female character who’s strength lies in her ability to legislate her own life, without pretense, and with regard for those who mean a lot to her. This is as well-developed a female character as has ever existed in Indian cinema.
Yes, the movie has many flaws in its juggling of arranged marriage issues and family relationships, and its narrative trajectory is rather too easy to predict even veering into classical cop-outs of melodrama like threats of suicide, deaths in the family and of course, simplifying the hurdles of unrequited love into a team sport at the end of the movie, but the way Katariya handles Sandhya, who is very humbly and aptly played by newcomer Bhumi Pednekar, and her tumultuous relationship with her reluctant husband Prem is the fruit of this story, is enough of an achievement (and shockingly by a tradionalist film production house – Yash Raj) that it could eventually lead into better stories and greater female roles for actresses in Hindi cinema, if not regional cinema as well.