Well, if you haven’t yet got around to watching Badhai Ho, please go! We think it is a well-done film about enduring love, affection, and family life. The story is built around the reticent romance of an elderly couple embedded in the dense routine of an Indian joint family living in a modest, middle-class government apartment. At the helm of the group is a mild middle-aged railway clerk and his wife who care for his mother and live with their two sons, the older one a young adult working in an Ad agency and the younger, a student in senior school. The grandmother supervises everything from her threshold in the living room, nothing misses her sharp eye, and everyone who enters and exits has to acknowledge her first. The home is small, colourful, and characteristically cluttered. The families in this close-knit neighbourhood are privy to most details about each other, and regular concern and comments can be reassuring or invasive, depending upon the way you look at it. In this setting, private moments are not an entitlement but a privilege, one that is mostly lost in the melee of everyday tasks. Thus, it would not be wrong to say that for all members concerned, moments of passionate exchange are the last thing on the to-do list. Whereas the young find the opportunity to escape to meet their friends or lovers, the middle-aged householders must bide their time for the right moment. Domestic engagement and religious activity are seen as the right things to do as you get older, but of course, being involved in others’ affairs is always a welcome pastime.
The new wave
This new wave of cinema that presents stories about ordinary people throws a definitive challenge to Bollywood’s big budget blockbusters about wealthy overindulged brats that end (or begin) with elaborate weddings, exotic honeymoons, fake sets and grand budgets. For some of us, this genre of Bollywood’s song and dance cinema has outlived its charm, if it ever was there. Up until recently, art films, as they were known in the 80’s and 90’s, had small budgets and a smaller audience. An art film would arrive in theatres and vanish within a week since they would fail to reach wide appeal. This recent challenge to the mainstream brings home the possibility of a widely appealing form of entertainment through movies like Dhobi Ghat, Lipstick under my Burkha, Lunch Box, Vicky Donor, Dam Laga Ke Haisha, Dangal, Badhai Ho, and others. Interestingly, recently, several of these films have also found widespread appeal in China. Mainstream Bollywood cinema has always generated significant revenue from viewership in Gulf countries.
Believable stories and realistic characters
These recent films are believable stories about events (dramatic, coincidental or ordinary) from forgettable locations, mostly staying away from casting well-known stars. These features combine to make the experience quite unforgettable. When the actors look pretty much like the people next door, they are easy to identify with, events are imbued with ordinary neighbourhood encounters of middle class families, and scenes are shot in regular neighbourhoods rather than cinema sets. In sum, these are attempts at authentic portrayals of ordinary people and the fact that their lives, relationships and struggles can also be a source of popular entertainment is in face the most refreshing aspect of the appeal. Serious issues are attended light-heartedly, reasonably, largely without the melodrama and hyperbole of mainstream Hindi cinema. Even more than the storyline, which may be inspired by true events or good stories, it is the attention to detail by way of language, setting, dress and display that make these films so endearing.
Another trend in Bollywood cinema has been the unfailing self-consciousness of the actors, both male and female. It seemed as if they were always aware of the “Lights, Camera, Action” routine. Hours would be spent on placing layers of make-up for the perfect look and more recently, male actors have tried to outdo each other in their body-building. Mostly, the outcome has been more drama and unrecognizable, cosmetic sense of what it means to be beautiful. These were stars and not actors that people were looking at. Their clothes become the latest fashion trend and their looks would launch a thousand ….. well, products!
By and large, cinema in India has been built around the extraordinary. Fantasy and stunt scenes were the mainstay of cinema Rosie Thomas writes in ‘Bombay before Bollywood Film City Fantasies’. Indian audiences are believed to be visiting the movies not for a slice of reality, or artistic appreciation, but for an escape from their difficult lives. At the end of a hard day of work, film-makers and actors alike believed that audiences needed outrageous fantasies that became the mainstay of cinema. The melodrama also works, and blockbusters are still fertile ground for earning revenue through implausible stories, but the palate of the Indian audience is expanding.
The sets, the scenes and the sounds
Returning to the film we are reviewing, Badhai Ho, we found that the Director and cast of the film display a special talent for authenticity. The scenes and sounds are true to the story in the smallest of details and Badhai Ho is exceptional in its presentation of realistic scenes. For instance, the lead female actor, Neena Gupta appears as a homemaker with careless concern over her appearance, carelessly slapping on a bindi on her face, she is seen with a small selection of clothes that seem to have been bought from the market next door. She is seen warmly wrapped in a modest embroidered shawl, a ubiquitous item of winter clothing in a North Indian home! The shawl as also an effective camouflage for her growing ‘shame’, her completely accidental pregnancy that she is determined not to terminate on ethical grounds. There is only one wedding scene in which Gupta arrives on the scene dressed up in a gorgeous sari, her face completely lit up by the festivity, both inside and outside of her. Like her husband, the audience is also floored by the unselfconscious beauty of the moment, and the couple’s minimal, nuanced exchanges of affection are thoroughly endearing.
The camera is oriented towards plausibility rather than perfection. The sets bear the genuine marks of lived surroundings rather than artificial sets ready for the next event. As mentioned earlier, the clothes seem to have been bought from local markets and the space is decorated with authentic middle-class preferences. In terms of language usage too, the film is exceptional. The accents are masterful, especially when the lead actor and older son of the ‘errant’ couple switches ‘codes’ between accents of Hindi. With his buddies, his speech is steeped in the accent of their Haryanvi background, with his extended family he shifts seamlessly to an accent typical of an area slightly east of the capital city where they live (Meerut). At the workplace, he artfully adopts a formal register of a bilingual Hindi-English environment. Since all three accents are very familiar to me, having been born into a Haryanvi family, married in Meerut and studied and worked in Delhi, I could not find a single error in the delivery of the dialogues. The same was true of Dangal, which was fetching in its genuine presentation of a wrestler’s family in Haryana. In fact, my ears are so sensitive to my native tongue (Haryanvi) that even a small deviation beyond regional variations can be jarring. Perhaps the fact that the dialect has mostly been caricatured in public spaces to ridicule the native speaker (and therefore the community) has added to my sensitivity. Ayushman Khurana delivers his dialogues with native expertise.
It seems that no detail was too small for the Director and actors, fitting easily into multiple roles, all of them genuinely middle-class in their pursuits, passions and predispositions. Let us turn to the main theme and examine the content and messages of the story. This portion may contain spoilers for those who haven’t seen the film.
The film is introduced around the busy schedule of a teenage, school-going son and his older brother, punctuated by constant interference from a cantankerous but loving old grandmother whose sharp gaze misses nothing. Always seated at the helm of affairs, in the living room facing the entrance to the apartment under her cotton quilt, her repeated jaap of prayer beads never obstructs her curiosity. She has an opinion on everything. The middle-aged couple are mild and affectionate, quite like so many people one can encounter in an Indian neighbourhood, sincere and devoted to domesticity and sustained relationships. These characters may not appeal to you, and as some of our team members felt, their circumscribed lives can seem dull, but their legitimacy is undisputable.
The cast is woven into an intricate, dynamic web of social life, where the main character (although it’s hard to choose who is your main character), a young 25 year old man, cleverly negotiates between time with male friends and demanding neighbours to get to work where he also pursues a romantic relationship with a colleague. The main story is embellished with little nuggets about their identity. For instance, in a scene when the grandmother fusses about her son “ignoring” her needs (he is indulgently attentive towards her, but she is unforgiving, even of imagined neglect), she recites an enduring legend about Meerut, the city to which they belong. It is a commonly heard story about the roughish tendencies of the region notorious for being disloyal, disrespectful and out-rightly rude. The grandmother narrates (to everyone in general but no one in particular, a conversational style I also discovered during my doctoral work) that her son’s (imagined) neglect is “not in his control, even the dedicated son of ancient times, the great Shravan Kumar, abandoned filial piety and left his ageing parents whom he was carrying on his shoulders as soon as he entered this region”, until of course he crossed over to another place and realised his error, returning quickly to retrieve them and save his reputation and fulfil his responsibility. (I have heard this story several times during conversations about the city). The elements of the city, believed to be fundamentally flawed, can corrupt even the incorruptible (Shravan Kumar, the epitome of devotion), she declared with an evil, self-indulgent smirk. At this point, it seems that her character, that of a nasty old woman, is sharply focussed on the stereotype of a mean mother-in-law. But even in this instance, the Director breaks out of this mould.
Love in the time of family
It is said somewhere that in arranged alliances, love begins with marriage whereas in marriages of choice, or love marriages, love ends in (or with?) marriage! Badhai Ho breaks this divide in the way affection is expressed between the son and his girlfriend and between his parents, although the expressions are very different. Between the married couple, romance is very much alive, and its expression is alien to the modern notion of love that usually implies a complete absorption in the other. It is shown, quite accurately, that romance in joint families is about waiting for the right moment, an opportunity, after completing everything else that needs to be done, getting the household responsibilities out of the way, ensuring that everyone is cared for before finding a private moment together. It is not an entitlement, and sexuality, certainly not attended to as a need when there are so many other things to do, it is collectively assumed and implied. Love is to be abducted in between everything else that needs to be done. Even the guilt-ridden act of closing the inside latch of his bedroom door is something that Mr. Kaushik feels he has to do with great care so that others cannot hear his intention to proceed with a private moment with his wife. Whether this is more or less romantic than prevailing practices in other communities is an interesting debate, but one that we will avoid in this essay. We will also not go into a discussion about which is a better way of loving, since that too is a futile debate. This is the way in which people live and love, and it the depictions in the film are accurate. The important point is that it is dramatically different from the practice of entitlement to the sacred space for a married couple. Longing for love and yearning for moments with each other is an expression of passion, and the accompanying suspense of anticipation, interruption, and disappointment is very different from love as an entitlement to intimacy. Love seems much more about preparing for and waiting for moments of togetherness than about the togetherness itself, which, when it happens, may not last very long.
In the film, the love between the parents is packed with flashes of heightened awareness of the other through secret exchanges and self-conscious glances that are kept closely in check by the larger system of the joint family. Locked doors become instantly suspect and the grandmother is again quick to make a nasty remark about their “intentions”, blaming her daughter-in-law for corrupting her “innocent” son, again an enduring theme of family tradition, wife as temptress and mother as protector! Despite this opposition and challenges of finding opportunities to express themselves, the love between the parents is warm and soft, comfortable, enduring and endearing. In their moments of privacy, the husbands reads out poetry that he has authored and published under a penname.
One part woman: The collapse of an intimate relationship
Expressions of love can take different forms, and we will briefly digress from the film here to provide a literary example of intimacy. ‘One part woman’ is a story by Perumal Murugan about romantic love between a wife and husband in a Tamil community set in a small Tamilian village about a hundred years ago, where social demands and traditional solutions for fertility come between a passionate and loving couple. Murugan describes their physical intimacy with panache that also extends to the unravelling of the couple’s personal anxieties of being childless, considered to be a significant impediment to the notion of a complete family life.
“His eyes were fixed on her as she walked away. Her body had stayed firm. As he gazed after her, desire welled up within him and he wanted her right then. But they had no privacy here at his in-law’s home. When they were just married space was made for them by rearranging sacks of just harvested kambu millets and pulses. But when he was no longer a new son-in-law, he got a cot in the porch or in front of the house. He was itching to drag her and take her home.
The mid-day sun tormented his body. During the monsoons, he stayed home cuddling with her. It had occurred to him a few times that had she borne a child that perhaps she too would have become haggard like the other women. When thoughts of women came to him, it was Ponna’s body that teased and tortured him incessantly. Unable to bear the agony, he tried to avoid looking at her” (p. 9).
In the story, the woman’s beauty and grace remain untouched by child bearing, but soon their affection is broken by conventional demands for child-bearing. The older women in the family along with the husband’s mother nudge the protagonist towards seeking a ‘divine’ solution to her childlessness, but the event goes completely haywire and destroys their love. The novel depicts the clash between conflicting ideas, and the breakdown of intimacy under the pressure of social approval (Murugan, 2015). Yet, the illustrations of Ponna and her husband’s affections provide another instance of the ways in which intimacy is negotiated in the context of a large family and community network.
India’s rich history
Despite the rather rich history of romantic love in the subcontinent that is evident in its temples, stories and legends, the contemporary Indian family is mostly uncomfortable with conjugality. The core of family relationships according to social anthropologist Patricia Uberoi is between a mother and child and not husband and wife. In ‘The Indians’, Kakar and Kakar remark that there are persistent underlying themes about being Indian that provide a unifying narrative despite tremendous diversity, and one of those themes is that although motherhood is celebrated, sexuality and romance are considered embarrassing. Intimacy has been, in the history of marriage and family life, opposed to the larger family network. Kakar (and Kakar) notes that nuclearisation WITHIN the joint family is happening at the initiative of women who are pushing for the recognition of the marital bond, but this is not peculiar to the Asian context. Family has always opposed sexuality, but also provided it sustenance (Kernberg, 1998).
Of shy, supportive men
A couple’s intimacy is implicitly rebellious and defiant. Many Indian couples live with the belief that parental functions should replace sexual ones once a child is born. The larger family mitigates urges of aggression, and exerts a pressure on individual couples for the sustainability of the larger family network. In fact, living with others can also regenerate an aging couple’s erotic life (Kakar). Additionally, lapses of sexuality outside the family are taken far more seriously than they are within. How will the institution of marriage survive the pressures of individuality over collective needs? We can see how in some instances, marriage does land up becoming a folie a deux, a shared madness between two people, when all other relationships are distanced.
An alternate history of Indian sexuality
In the Kamasutra, we find an alternate history of Indian sexuality. For instance, erotic love is lifted from banal sexuality of physical, moral and procreational functions and expressions of erotica travel far beyond physical expressions of sexuality towards the objective of heightened sensual awareness rather than simple physical intercourse that is seen as limited. Kakar and Kakar write that “In today’s post-moral world, the danger for erotic love is less from moral high-ground than from the heat of instinctual desire. Pleasure, the Kamasutra says, is something to be cultivated. The woman is an equal participant. The pervasive presence of longing is at the heart of the Kamasutra. Love is longing and sometimes fulfilment. Individual is replaced by the descriptive. In the modern world, one finds sexuality lingering in darkness, feared and shunned except in conversations about procreation, deeply conservative and puritanical. How a ripe foundation of eroticism turned into a “sexual wasteland where kissing scenes in cinema were banned but couple entwined clotheless in temples” (Kakar and Kakar, p. 85).
This is the sort of paradox that Badhai ho lifts its audience out of. By presenting a rather awkward middle-aged man, eager to express himself, yet as tentative as an Indian (?) teenager, he fears his mother’s wrath and hesitatingly approaches his beautiful wife. The traditional rivalry between the ascetic and erotic is transcended in the story and ordinary people can find relief from the tensions that have been built around domestic life.
Badhai Ho takes on these themes without junking them, (and perhaps without access to academic discourse about intimacy) but moving them around a bit to accommodate the different expressions of sexuality, that of the young couple and their middle-aged parents. The embarrassment at their obvious fertility and sexuality is finally resolved and the younger generation adjust to this new reality, and in doing so, offer us a challenge to look at things differently as a collective. The conversations between the different characters that leads to the resolution of this tension is particularly insightful, and also perhaps instructive.
An alternative explanation
One of our team members had a different take on the movie, and I want to table that to find balance between the dominant opinion of the film as a delightful and entertaining storyline, and another position that sees the dull and dependent life of the middle-aged woman as inconsequential and regressive. She argues that the movie was obviously made in a patriarchal mould, where the wife is shown as meek and accommodating with very little to live for outside of the domestic unit. With no interests outside her family, she is also shown without contact even with her natal family. Furthermore, the somewhat indelicate approaches towards the young man by an older ‘aunty’ a neighbour’s wife, was quite unpalatable for her. It was hard to understand the function of this mild ‘stalking’ by an older woman in the scenario of the film. Was it don’t to show that this too is common? Although the handling of sexuality and the family togetherness in a time of opposition from others are all well examined, she felt that certain characters like the teenage son were left somewhat unexplored. Pooja also remarked that she found the role of grandmother quite stereotypical, and her attitudes towards others a bit jarring. The news of the pregnancy, it was felt, tended to overshadow all other activity. This our advisor felt was over the top, and needed moderation. Has the movie glorified the image of a somewhat helpless, dependent middle-class, sacrificing, all-goodness personified woman as housewife and housewife alone? Furthermore, would the story have panned out differently if they had been shown as parents of two daughters? When I read these points, I revisited the film and agree that these points were legitimate, whether you agree with them or not. Well, go ahead, see the film, and if you have, we would love to read your opinions about it.
 Uberoi, P. (1994). Family, kinship nd marriage in India. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
  Kakar, S. and Kakar, K. (2009). The Indians: Portrait of a people. New Delhi: Penguin.
 Kernberg, O. (1998). Love Relations: Normality and pathology. Binghamton, NY: Vail-Ballou Press.
 Kakar, S.(1989). Intimate relations. Chicago, Il: University of Chicago Press.
 Kakar, S. and Kakar, K. (2009). The Indians: Portrait of a people. New Delhi: Penguin.