Dum Laga Ke Haisha comes from Yash Raj Films. When their name appears right after the censor certificate, we hear familiar humming and maybe even a familiar tune and you’d probably imagine Shah Rukh Khan opening his arms with dreamy looks in his eyes. Only, the tune is not necessarily something you’ve heard before. It is just indistinguishable. The voice is that of Kumar Sanu and we are soon transported to Haridwar in a seedy little audio cassette shop with Sanu’s posters and a bunch of cassettes. The tape gets stuck, Prem (Ayushmann Khurrana) winds the tape (with a pencil, yeah), applies some liquid to the player and plays them again. One of the cassettes that stands out in the bunch is Yash Chopra’s Darr. Of course. The year is 1995.
Sharat Katariya knows his 90s. But this is not Farah Khan’s Main Hoon Naa type ode going all in on the filmmaking sensibilities of the era (in her case, the 70s). Katariya is not in the mood for satirizing the 90s like what most of us love to indulge in, in social media today. He’d rather paint an ode the the 90s India than the 90s Bollywood. The songs and Kumar Sanu are just products of the era. Katariya is a filmmaker in more of the Hrishikesh Mukherjee mould. Like Mukherjee, his strengths are in capturing those minute capsules of familial life, those words exchanged either in love or in anger or in sadness in the most inoffensive and inaudible ways, those everyday moments and the well written fringe characters who can be antagonists but really are friends, very much part of life.
The plot here is immaterial to your enjoyment of the film and the trailer was suitably misleading. Here is a story of love, hate, marriage and a family that’s product of its time or maybe even a time before it as this is Haridwar and not a big city that’s usually the setting for 90s kitschy Bollywood. There is a joint family that travels together to meet the prospective bride for our man Prem (even the name checks out) and the beauty is in the detailing. We have a character forgetting that the gas is switched on and running back to the house as everyone is getting into the car. The telephone set in a common area and the whole family getting to know that the newly married are indulging in bliss of different kind not openly talked about in 1995. The Bajaj scooters, Mile Sur Mera Tumhara playing in the background or people fainting and gasping at the thought of a divorce.
The setting that Katariya has chosen lends beautifully to this story. He sets a lot of moments during travel – by scooter or walk and talk or a congested car – and the bylanes of Haridwar are as claustrophobic as they come. It transfers that claustrophobic nature to the story and characters and informs the small mindset of the joint families and people of that era. This is important because Dum Laga Ke Haisha subtly tackles several issues. There is a thrust upon arranged marriage, visible size issues between the husband and wife and an invisible issue of education and intelligence – she has a degree and wants to be a teacher, he failed his tenth standard exams – that informs their relationship and the respect they have for each other. The development of this story arc makes the film. And both the leads are fantastic here. Ayushmann Khurrana aces these flawed characters who don’t try to hide their inadequacies. In a way, he has played the same character over and over but routinely taps a new register every time. Here is an actor growing in stature with every film and he’s got solid competition in the actor who plays his wife. It’s hard to believe this is Bhumi Pednekar’s first film from her performance but it’s typical as our industry still doesn’t try to write lead roles like that of Sandhya Verma. One of the finest debuts in ages, Sandhya Verma reminds you of a Tina Fey award acceptance speech where she says, “I want to thank my parents for raising me somehow to have confidence that’s disproportionate with my looks and abilities. That’s what all parents should do.” And that’s exactly what Sandhya Verma is all about. She’s a feisty, no nonsense person who can give it back as good as she gets and take stock of her life all by herself. More power to Sandhya Vermas and Pednekar for this solid performance. The ensemble here is outstanding powered by the inimitable Sanjay Mishra and Sheeba Chaddha. Chaddha may be typecast but she plays these tragic characters with a big mouth so well. And as for Sanjay Mishra, just watch him in one of the early scenes lifting up a chappal, realizing that his daughter-in-law is falling at his feet and being in a spot of bother between dropping those chappals and blessing her. What an actor.
(An edited version of this was published in The New Indian Express)