As Hindi film micro-genres go, Ayushmann Khurrana Chips Away At Masculine Tropes is a stellar one. It may have become a formula of sorts – there’s one about hair loss coming up, and another built around a gay character – but the films have by and large been smart, funny and unusually perceptive about middle-class insecurities. Unfortunately, this makes matters worse for Dream Girl, a film that’s slight to begin with, and which looks even slighter in comparison to Dum Laga Ke Haisha, Shubh Mangal Saavdhan and Badhaai Ho.

Desperate to repay his single father’s debts, Karam (Khurrana) glimpses a flyer promising employment at 70,000 a month. It turns out to be a “friendship call centre", which pairs lonely men with seductive female voices. Karam, whose cooing falsetto has landed him in stage productions as Radhas and Sitas since childhood, senses an opportunity. He answers the phone, improvises a coquettish character named Pooja. By the end of the day, he has a strange, if well-paying, job.

Soon, Pooja has attracted a host of admirers: a cop (Vijay Raaz), an ardent teenager (Raj Bhansali), a misandrist editor (Nidhi Bisht) and a buffalo-rearing virgin (Abhishek Banerjee). Their conversations make for a lot of low comedy, and though Khurrana sells everything that’s saleable, the hit rate isn’t high enough to keep scenes from dragging. It’s not surprising that writer-director Raaj Shaandilyaa once worked on Comedy Circus: there are silly sound effects and many of the gags are built around broad stereotypes.

Dream Girl has little to say about the effect of female impersonation on men who specialize in it: everyone’s matter-of-fact about Karam’s gender-swapping on stage, and it seems to have had little psychological impact on him. Neither does Shaandilyaa have much to say about the act of phone sex (or friendship). Karam has a revelation early on about how lonely all his callers seem. A platonic client might have added some depth, but none of the callers is just seeking a friendly ear; they’re all in love with Pooja.

There are a few things that work. The setting of Gokul, Mathura is nicely used; unlike some recent Hindi films, this doesn’t feel like a big city script relocated to a small town. Shaandilyaa has a way with flowery comic phrasing – there’s a droll bit where Annu Kapoor, playing Karam's father, becomes an Urdu speaker overnight (even if the extent of caricature is… uncomfortable). Karam’s own dream girl (Nushrat Bharucha) is given little to do but smile at his overtures, but Kapoor and Khurrana are a warm pairing, and Banerjee is fast becoming one of Hindi cinema’s defter comic actors.

Karam, dressed in a sari, repeats the “people are lonely" line towards the end, a moment with none of the subversive force it should have had. Khurrana should be wary of getting stuck with sermons: Shubh Mangal Saavdhan had a similar one before its muddled climax, and Article 15 was riddled with them. In any case, Dream Girl’s moralizing is unearned – it upbraids the call centre’s proprietor for not respecting his employees, but doesn’t bother giving the women anything to say, let alone distinct personalities. This is a film about female impersonation with no sympathy for its one queer character, which talks about loneliness but brushes off a suicide attempt. Like Pooja, it speaks in two voices, one of which is fake.

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