The current Top 10 hit Jugjugg Jeeyo has ambled into multiplexes at a fortuitous juncture with regard to the debate over whether or not the Hindi mainstream is out of ideas. It's not a new idea in itself, but it's an old idea done surprisingly well, and thus a demonstration of how that might still (just) be enough. It's also Dharma Productions - the mini-studio overseen by mega-producer Karan Johar - picking up where it left off before the pandemic: indeed, director Raj Mehta's immediate follow-up to Good Newwz, which opened at Christmas 2019 to genial notices and became one of Bollywood's last hits before lockdown. As with that goof-off, Jugjugg Jeeyo (Trekkie-friendly translation: Live Long and Prosper) represents an elevated example of the heteronormative, family-centred and family-oriented mass movie, with Dilip Kumar references for grandma, familiar faces, and 21st century attitudes and beats for the kids; the kind of movie, in other words, that this industry has been making since the year dot, and thus ought to know better than most how to make work.
It begins with scenes from a marriage. Erstwhile childhood sweethearts Kukoo (Varun Dhawan) and Nainaa (Kiara Advani) grew up together in the Punjab, married young (after the movies' first abs-based proposal; other stomachs are available), then moved to grey, wintry Toronto and began to drift apart. We catch up with them, glum and barely communicative, ahead of a fifth anniversary meal at which the conversation quickly turns to the matter of divorce. Before the paperwork is filed, however, they have one last duty to fulfil as a couple, namely an awkward homecoming for Kukoo's younger sister Ginny (Prajakta Koli)'s wedding celebrations, where they're torn between maintaining the pretence of a rocksolid item, and announcing they're about to break their vows at an event where everybody else around them is super-psyched at the thought of another couple taking theirs. What follows is something like a Hindi analogue to Top Gun: Maverick, another film about people strategising the best moment to drop a bombshell so as to jet off comparatively intact.
On paper, this set-up hints at something naggingly conservative, and you can easily imagine a version of Jugjugg Jeeyo that insists all our unhappy travellers need is to return to the warm embrace of homeland and family, the better to be reminded of what truly matters in this life. Certain scenes in this four-man screenplay shuffle in that direction, but the film JJ most closely reminded me of was 2015's slightly underrated Dil Dhakadne Do - Zoya Akhtar's attempt to build fresh bridges between resident and non-resident Indians - relocated to dry land. For starters, Mehta's film concedes that the homeland might play host to some varyingly conservative attitudes itself. It's the wedding guest who tells Nainaa she should tie Kukoo down with a child; it's the baleful swain watching on from the sidelines as his beloved Ginny is paired with someone for whom she doesn't particularly care. All of this, however, is but the preliminary to a (very funny, very well-played) after-hours drinking session in which Kukoo's father Bheem (Anil Kapoor) gradually lets slip that he, too, is fundamentally unhappy, and planning to divorce his boy's sainted mother Geeta (Neetu Kapoor). This is the thing about bombshells; you never know how many anybody else is carrying around with them at any one time, and whether theirs might outweigh your own.
As in Good Newwz, Mehta takes a sitcom-ready scenario, then begins to rotate its sides as one would a Rubik's Cube until he arrives at promising new configurations; there's a playfulness about this, but also an appreciable discipline in the screenwriting, an effort to find the drama (and, yes, melodrama) in what might initially present as fairly flimsy material. Case study: the second-half scene in which, standing before his oblivious, soon-to-be-ex wife, Bheem cavils at the prospect of holding his own miserable marriage up as an example for his son and daughter-in-law. Yet almost every scene here finds one character knowing slightly more than the person they're addressing; the script is a series of crises to be negotiated and mitigated against. The classic Indian wedding is thus converted into a form of group therapy, in which everybody is forced to admit, confront and work through their issues. You might well feel a pang of sympathy for poor Ginny, reduced to a third-party observer as these fireworks start to go off around her, but this openness staves off any hint of editorial fingerwagging, any suggestion the values of one generation should be imposed upon one another. Everybody on screen learns from everybody else, which strikes me as a pretty healthy societal model for an Indian movie to push forward in 2022.
That JJ proves fun to watch is down to Mehta's equally skilful shuffling of personalities; you're reminded that the reopening of cinemas has also been a reunion with old friends, faces you haven't seen on a big screen for some while. This filmmaker has an easy, obvious affinity with and sympathy for his young leads, which helps us over the choppier stretches. He's spotted just why engineering student Kukoo might have slipped into depression at having ended up a nightclub bouncer - but also how his resentment and status anxiety could mess up a marriage. (Credit to Dhawan, who - as in 2018's October - relishes the prospect of playing a character who isn't always readily likable.) Advani, who could have easily settled for being pretty in sweet nothings, makes a fair stab at inhabiting the LBDs and attendant insecurities of the modern career woman, tapping previously hidden depths of frustration and regret; whenever she goes toe-to-toe with her co-star, you really do feel a relationship is at stake.
Mehta at first appears less interested in Geeta - Kapoor primarily has to exude maternal goodness and constancy - but he's clearly realised there are advantages to having at least one character on screen who has their shit together, not least to point up the fecklessness (the scattered shit) of the others. Mehta also grants her the most touching scene in the whole picture: Geetu passing on instructions to her husband's new woman (Tisca Chopra) as one would to a housesitter about an especially cherished pet. It's touching because we know just who and what she's resigned to giving up: Anil Kapoor, Indian cinema's new favourite father figure, more approachable than The Big B and a deft, self-mocking comic actor besides, here investing Bheem with a mix of dad jokes, midlife crankiness, and a misguided belief (common to many men in the autumn of their years) that he's somehow younger and hipper than he actually is.
When the screenwriting gods rush him to hospital in the second half, it's the only time Mehta's film thinks to teach one of its characters a lesson. Yet it's a funny one (trapped wind that has to be passed off as a heart attack: more deception) and one that further points towards the film's core theme. "It's not good to suppress natural things," Bheem tells Kukoo from his sick bed, having hopefully opened a window; Mehta's prescribing emotional honesty as a cure for (some of) India's present woes. There's nothing especially radical in what it's proposing, then: one of the thoughts the film prompts is that if Indian characters can still get in this big a tizz about a concept as yellowing as marital fidelity, heaven knows what's going to happen when Dharma get round to addressing the matter of pronouns. (A related thought: what a pity it was that the mass audience couldn't follow Kapoor into embracing 2017's Ek Ladki Ko Toh Aisa Laga, which likewise dealt gently and entertainingly with issues that shouldn't be a big deal this far into the 21st century.) Yet for its two-and-a-half hours, JJ circles what we might call the multiplex's sweet spot, being just substantial and just engaging enough to feel worthy of an evening out. In 2022, with everything we've been through and the world falling apart at the seams outside, there's an obvious appeal to watching nice, photogenic folk hurdling problems far worse than yours and mine, in a movie made by people who give at least the impression of knowing exactly what they're doing.
Jugjugg Jeeyo is now playing in selected cinemas.