‘Dum Laga Ke Haisha’: A feminist fable about weight of aspirational manhood
Among other things, it is its heroine’s casual, and yet supreme, autonomy from the male gaze that makes this a special film
There is a scene in Dum Laga Ke Haisha where the newly married Prem Prakash Tiwari (Ayushmann Khurrana) is shown standing on the street staring, with obvious yearning, at a group of white female tourists—common enough sight in Haridwar, where the story is set.
His wife Sandhya (Bhumi Pednekar) tells her ogling husband, “Go ahead, have your fill. I’ll wait.” Among other things, it is its heroine’s casual, and yet supreme, autonomy from the male gaze that makes this a special film.
Written and directed by Sharat Katariya, Dum Laga Ke Haisha (DLKH), which released last week, is special also for other reasons. One, it treads new ground without resort to technological gimmickry; two, it bucks the trend by not letting the story cede sovereignty to the camera; three, it demonstrates that wholesome entertainment doesn’t need to be either regressive or dumbed down, and can even be, in an understated way, progressive; and four, it demonstrates that a film rooted in a real time and real place can be as gripping, if not more, than ones set in the la-la-land of Bollywood or the Tarantinopur of Anurag Kashyap and his fast-multiplying clones.
Critics have largely praised DLKH as a fine rendition of 1990s nostalgia—citing its invocation of Kumar Sanu, cassette players, VCRs, and period detailing. It has been slotted as a heart-warming romantic comedy. But DLKH is much more than a rom-com with a retro, small-town twist. It marks a cinematic departure in the way it takes the rom-com out of the urban cool register and refashions it for the Indian aam aadmi (and I mean aam aadmi in a gender-specific, aurat-exclusive way).
The film’s tagline—“love comes in all sizes”—may give the impression that it is about the overweight bride, Sandhya. But it is actually about the outsized aspirations of the male protagonist Prem, and the heavy psychic burden of frustrations and resentments they inflict on him.
The ’90s was a time when India was opening up—both economically, and culturally, with the advent of satellite television. Everything seemed possible, and within reach. It was the 1990s that gave birth to what we today call an “aspirational India”.
And yet, for a vast majority of the aspiring classes, aspiration’s wait for fulfillment would be a long one, if not the proverbial wait for Godot. The journey from entitlement to reconciliation via disappointment is a journey that each aspirer would have to make for himself. And this journey—because it can give hard knocks to one’s self-esteem, to the fantasies one has erected about oneself—can often be traumatic.
The great Indian (sexually and otherwise) frustrated male with a gigantic sense of entitlement is a common species not just in small town India but in the metros as well. Prem is a typical sample. And it is his traversal of this trajectory—made by hundreds of thousands who came of age in the 1990s—that defines the narrative arc of the film.
Prem is 25, a class X drop-out, and runs a small cassette shop where he spends his days listening to his idol Kumar Sanu’s odes to love and longing. When he is not bullied around by his irascible father (Sanjay Mishra), he is busy trying to resurrect his repressed manhood in a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) shakha. The film’s gentle mockery of shakha culture—coming at a time when the RSS’s political influence is on the ascendant—is priceless. All the more so because it doesn’t happen often in Bollywood.
Prem’s dreams of a slim and pretty wife—a wife that he can show off to his peers—crash when his father moots an arranged marriage with the overweight Sandhya. Marrying—or “being stuck” with a fat wife—is, for Prem, the last straw in a life marked by failures. He flatly refuses to marry her. But his father and other members of the family see an economic trade-off: so what if the bride is not conventionally attractive, they argue, she has a B.Ed. qualification, and is in line for a secure government teaching job. She is a financial lifeline for a family with dim economic prospects.
For Sandhya’s family, too, the arranged match is a calculated trade-off. They are marrying their educated daughter into a family that’s financially inferior to theirs, and to a boy who’s a school drop-out, only because they believe—not without justification—that the marriage market is not very kind to overweight girls, no matter how qualified they might be.
His romantic and sexual aspirations thus crushed under the weight of economic pragmatism, Prem is bristling with resentment at his new bride. Sandhya, for her part, is not only oblivious to her husband’s sense of shame about her physical appearance, she is complex-free about her weight. Indeed, one of the triumphs of the film—a film where the figure/weight of the heroine is a central motif—is that the question of her losing weight, or trying to get into shape, is never, not once, on the agenda. The story was only ever going to be about how Prem copes with the psychological burden of having an overweight wife.
Initially, he does not cope at all. He cannot accept her. At a friend’s wedding, when the friend shows him a photograph of his conventionally pretty wife, Prem’s sense of victimhood explodes, and he ends up demeaning his own wife in front of his peers, sparking a chain of events that culminates with his wife filing for divorce.
It is yet another humiliating failure—the 25-year-old Prem appears for, and again flops in his class X English paper—that finally precipitates a decisive break with his phantasmatic self and its ludicrous baggage of entitlements. For the first time, he is able to see his wife and see something other than her excess weight.
“Men act and women appear,” wrote the art critic John Berger in his classic Ways of Seeing. DLKH is an extraordinary film not because it has an overweight actor as the heroine, but because it portrays, for the first time, a young Indian woman who is not only unapologetic about being overweight, but is empowered enough to reconfigure male perceptions that link her love-worthiness to her figure.
In thus challenging, through the persona of Sandhya, the patriarchal male gaze which dictates that a woman’s identity—no matter whatever else her accomplishments—must hinge on how pleasing to the male gaze she is, DLKH also foregrounds how burdensome the male gaze could be for the males themselves.
This is the epiphany that carries Prem past the finishing line and beyond in the climactic Dum Laga Ke Haisha race in which husbands have to physically carry their wives on their back. Sandhya is by far the heaviest of all the participating wives. Prem’s burden is therefore the heaviest. And yet, his wife’s weight is nothing as compared with the psychic burden of seeking validation by showing off a wife with “Juhi Chawla looks” (as his father mocks him)—a burden he does well to get rid of.
But in order to get rid of it, Prem must first reject the overweening authority wielded by the two patriarchal figures in his life—his biological father, and his shakha leader. Only then can he become eligible for the love of his wife, and be the man who can not only love her, but love every single kilo of her.