Monday 11 June 2018

Hindus and hen dos: "Veere Di Wedding"

Last month's Raazi was an implicitly feminist Hindi hit: a taut spy thriller that deployed the pre-eminent female star of the moment to reflect upon the precarious position of women in wartime. The film that has replaced it in the UK Top Ten, Shashanka Ghosh's Veere Di Wedding, proceeds along the wobblier lines of a Bridesmaids, exhibiting with every turned or broken heel the pop brashness of "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun". To paraphrase the Mint Juleps: it takes every kind of people to turn an industry around. Certainly Ghosh's film centralises and celebrates women we haven't seen much of in mainstream Hindi cinema: gals who smoke, drink, throw up and curse (even if the English subtitles rather cutely redact the worst pottymouthing with asterisks); who unabashedly tour Phuket's red-light district, take possession of their own bodies and properties, and are perfectly capable of getting by - and getting themselves off - without the need for dumb boys. At a time when India has taken a swing to the moralistic right under the generally forbidding eye of a father-figure leader, perhaps it's not so surprising the results should have provoked outrage from some quarters. Yet those humourless trolls who've gone after both the film and its actresses for daring to have a good time strike me as guilty of exactly that huffy overreaction one doltish husband within the movie displays in opening divorce proceedings after catching his wife in shuddering flagrante with a sex toy; easier and more pleasurable for everyone, surely, if they'd just join in the fun.

A film this liberal in content and outlook feels very much like the product of a newly confident and mobile Indian middle-class, blessed with the money that permits freedom of choice in everything from taxi apps (one of which is prominently showcased here) to potential suitors; whether Western audiences who've seen Jada Pinkett Smith give half of New Orleans a golden shower will be left quite as shocked or aghast seems at most unlikely. Ghosh's characters start out as cartoonish exaggerations of personalities viewers will likely recognise, if not from real life, then from an HBO show that happens to celebrate its 20th anniversary this month. There is the nervous bride-to-be, Kalindi (Kareena Kapoor Khan), attempting to navigate a ceremony that her folks and in-laws would turn into a grand theatrical event; and then there are the trio of old school friends who reunite from far-flung corners of the country, bringing their own relationship hang-ups to the banqueting table. Avni (Sonam Kapoor) is the careerist one, a family-court lawyer whose defensiveness in love and lust seems tied to the number of marriages she's seen fail close-up; Meera (Shikha Talsania), living in semi-blissful domesticity with her American hubby and young child, uses the wedding to go comprehensively off the leash; while hard-bitten, hard-drinking divorcee Sakshi (Swara Bhaskar) sports a tattoo above her broken heart that may as well be a scarlet letter for the way everybody looks at her.

If it hasn't already done so, Buzzfeed India will doubtless run a "Which VDW guest are you?" quiz in the coming weeks or months; for the moment, it's possible just to be diverted and cheered by the sight of four actresses who work well together making more of these parts than the composite sketches they might at first present as. Ghosh, aided considerably by his costumiers and choreographers, makes them all look good, which isn't always a given in these girls-gone-wild comedies, and qualifies as a feminist gesture in its own right. Now that Khan has finally reined in the relentless hairtossing that may just have been a prerequisite of being a twentysomething Bollywood heroine, her face is revealed as highly expressive, non-Botoxed and absolutely a boon for comedy; Kapoor's Disney-princess beauty has long been a matter of public record, but I'd somehow never spotted just how toweringly tall she is. The generosity extends to the opposite sex, too, which makes a change from all those Masti/Pyaar Ka Punchnama noncoms where you felt neither the horny heroes nor the filmmakers really gave much of a hoot about the bikini-clad girls they went fumbling towards. Though our heroines encounter one obvious gadabout (followed round by the chikka-chikka bit from Yello's "Oh Yeah", for some reason), boys here are really no worse an option than taking an Uber from time to time: good for the occasional ride. 

Beneath that raucous toplayer, one spies flashes of a more traditional entertainment, as if VDW were really just a Traveling Pants movie with a few filthy jokes tucked inside. Around the halfway point, this bridal shower crosses the threshold of an abandoned property the production may well have bought off Nicholas Sparks, and which inevitably receives a makeover of its own. Yet Ghosh's heroines each want different things (security, a night off, the albatross of divorce lifted from their shoulders) which keeps matters fresh, and writers Nidhi Mehra and Mehul Suri prove as quietly perceptive as 2015's crowdpleaser Dil Dhadakne Do was in analysing those generational issues now being raised across India. Somewhere in the background of the partying is the resonant, possibly even universal idea that what parents want for their children isn't always what those children want for themselves. What's most radical about Veere Di Wedding - and especially radical within the context of a Bollywood romcom - is the sincere doubt the film allows in as to whether a multiple-venue, million-rupee wedding is truly the best framework within which to consolidate one's love; in this, it deviates from Sex and the City's giftwrapped shop-window feminism, suggesting that tents and dresses and ice sculptures matter far less than the people involved in these occasions, and the feelings they have for one another. 

Throughout VDW's never wholly predictable second half, you spot Ghosh wondering whether it's possible for a film with the word wedding embedded in its title to conclude with anything other than the standard pledging of troth. Some unusually deft plotting provides us with a compromise option, intended to satisfy pearl-clutching diehards and party-hearty modernisers alike: bringing the most valuable gift of all to the ball, it's Kalindi's friends who resolve the familial logjam that underpins, sometimes impedes the romantic plot, enabling the first half's nuptials, which always had the look of a hollow stunt, to be rescaled and replayed as a more personal, intimate and touching affair. Thus does the film disassemble the wedding cake to put it back together and have it eaten - but surely only the most joylessly puritanical viewers would deny themselves a piece, given the liveliness of the company. The most forceful song in Ghosh's film, played out over a makeover montage that - in a not untypical manoeuvre here - razzes the necessity of makeover montages, has the refrain "Lose your inhibitions, let go of traditions". Veere Di Wedding throws some of the latter up in the air to enjoyable effect, but it's equally savvy enough to court that audience that still thinks it would be nice to catch a bouquet, or possibly even kiss the bride.

Veere Di Wedding is showing in cinemas nationwide.

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