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The feast of love that is promised by this movie’s title amounts to nothing more than a few plates of kebab and biryani. There is that one moment when Aditya Roy Kapur’s Tariq gives new meaning to the old saying about the bone in the kebab when he hands over a piece of skewered meat to Parineeti Chopra’s Gulrez and she chews longingly on it.

The rest of the time, Habib Faisal’s Daawat-e-Ishq is a safe and one-of-its-kind dowry comedy, in which Gulrez and her widower father Qadir (Anupam Kher) decide to tackle rapacious demands from prospective grooms by becoming rapacious themselves. This they do by bending legal provisions that protect women against marital violence. Gulrez is a superficially liberated child of liberalization, whose materialistic desires eclipse her value system. Her father, a legal clerk, is an old-fashioned but spineless man who buys into Gulrez’s outrageous scheme to misuse the Indian Penal Code’s Section 498A and make enough money to get the hell out of Hyderabad.

We are back in the land of Dekkani Hindi and delicious food—both served with more economy and better impact in Bobby Jasoos earlier this year—but Faisal is hungry for more, so the convoluted plot ensures a trip to Lucknow, the other great centre of aristocratic Muslim culture, where father and daughter hope to trap a family into demanding dowry, file a complaint under Section 498A, and walk away with a settlement.

The lamb for the evening’s slaughter is Tariq, possessor of parrot-bright shirts, kilos of kohl, and recipes for authentic Lucknawi cuisine. Something resembling love leaks through the encounters between Gulrez and Tariq, which are excuses to cue in redundant songs, betrayal, and the inevitably cheerful climax.

Gulrez is reminded at one point that the Section 498A “is a law, not nail polish", but the failed satire treats the provision as just that. The equivalence between a dowry victim, shown here as somebody who would go so far as to misuse a law made for her protection, and the dowry seeker, portrayed as an extremely wealthy but fundamentally decent young man, leaves the plot with no identifiable villain except its own blandness.

The 1980s saw a spate of anti-dowry films, many of them heaving with noxious mothers-in-law, wilting daughters-in-law and spineless husbands, but there was little doubt about where they stood on the barbaric practice. Daawat-e-Ishq is opposed to dowry but it also wants elaborately choreographed songs. And tender moments between the attractive but dull leads. And comic sequences. And likable characters who do grotesque things. Only a few flavours survive the mishmash—Kher’s comic timing and deftly judged body language, Faisal’s sharp ear for dialogue. Chopra’s workmanlike performance accentuates her unlikable character. Gulrez is the kind of spicy exterior-and-hollow-interior heroine that so many film-makers adore—all talk and no action. Roy Kapur’s marionette-like twitches and fixed grins are further proof that the lad is easy on the eye but tough on the brain. But then it is hard to complain about hamming in a movie packed with meat.

Daawat-e-Ishq released in theatres on Friday.

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