Nagraj Manjule, a National Award-winning director who made the landmark Marathi film Sairat two years ago, is self-avowedly anti-Bollywood. It’s not difficult to understand why if you watch Dhadak, a predictably weak-kneed remake designed as the launch vehicle for screen legend Sridevi’s daughter, Janhvi Kapoor.
Dhadak is set in Udaipur, and the opening scene introducing the leads would interest the tourist in us. Madhukar Bagla, played by Ishaan Khatter (actor Shahid Kapoor’s half-brother who debuted in Majid Majidi’s Beyond the Clouds), is dreaming of his muse Parthavi (Kapoor) in his lakeside home. He is woken up by his friend, Gokul (Ankit Bisht), and rushes to take part in a snack-eating competition as locals and foreigners cheer him on. He wins and dreamily takes his prize from Parthavi, the daughter of Ratan Singh (Ashutosh Rana), a powerful politician who isn’t shy of grandstanding.
If the Singhs are owners of a palatial home-cum-hotel, Madhukar’s family, too, runs its small restaurant at home. We are made more aware of differences in class rather than caste. The city of lakes, with its contiguity of forts, temples and touristy homes, doesn’t offer a stark demarcation of the two protagonists’ fortunes or lifestyles. Parthavi’s proficiency in English, as against Madhukar’s mumbling, and her riding a bike to college are signs of their caste/class divide.
Madhukar, aided by Gokul and the balding, diminutive Purshottam (Shridhar Watsar), who gets to be the comic relief — although the comedy in the film is doomed like the love story — pursue Parthavi as they enter college. She dares and he responds to win her favour. She asks him to croon Justin Bieber. He manages to translate a Hindi film song and sings it instead. The tedious ploy of intertextuality through dialogues or acts invoking Bollywood songs and film names is peppered here to entertain. But they are ineffective, just like the comic dialogues throughout as the film stumbles towards its tragic denouement.
Parthavi promises Madhukar a kiss if he turns up at the birthday of her brother Roop (Aditya Kumar) at home. He obliges. A crowd dances to the upbeat tunes of Zingaat, one of the popular tracks retained from Sairat’s brilliant soundtrack. Once the lovers are caught by the girl’s family and Madhukar is beaten up, Parthavi becomes the aggressor and the duo flee, first to Madhukar’s maternal uncle’s home in Nagpur. The uncle sends them to stay at a guesthouse run by a Christian couple in Kolkata, where they rebuild their lives, get married and become parents.
In Sairat, the fateful end is chilling and leaves the viewer disturbed as the scene of the lovers’ death is presented through the eyes of their young child. Dhadak has a twist, and ends with a note with statistics on honour killing and condemning it. Rather than understanding how, we merely end up acknowledging that casteism perpetrates evil.
Kapoor and Khatter are competent, but have little to play with. They shine in a scene which is also one that stays truest to the original — the envious husband involved in an altercation with his more educated wife on the streets, as they question their choices and the relationship threatens to unravel before they rediscover their need for each other.
Produced by Karan Johar, Dhadak is directed by Shashank Khaitan whose previous films (Humpty Sharma ki Dulhania, Badrinath ki Dulhania) questioned feudal patriarchal setups, albeit not in a radical fashion.
One can’t question the adaptation of a story set in rural Maharashtra to locate the retelling in Rajasthan. But unlike Sairat, Marathi cinema’s highest-ever grosser that was made on a shoestring budget by a Dalit director known for unflinching portrayals based on his lived experiences, big-ticket Dhadak plays it safe. And despite its much shorter running time, it feels more drawn-out as it sidesteps the real everyday workings of caste and gender politics.