Before launching an attack on Dhadak, let’s say something nice about Dharma Productions. Karan Johar CANNOT see poverty. The philanthropic nature of the man ensures that nothing poor or unseemly is spotted on a Dharma set. Every possible element that can pull down the glamour quotient of a film is given the Dharma airbrushing. A slum becomes a commune of jolly Bongs. A roadside stall is upgraded to a vintage bar. A poor fisherman is gentrified into an entrepreneur. Karan Clause knows the best. You see, he does it all for our benefit. He does it so that the naazuk constitution of the Hindi film audience is not upset by something unpalatable or real. Because, the Indian audience needs to be protected from such terrible things such as caste politics, poverty, unposh sets and unairbrushed, unManishMalhotraed lead characters.
Dhadak is a perfect example of the Dharma brand of altruism. One can almost imagine Shashank Khaitan and Karan Johar poring over the magnificent beast that was Nagraj Manjule’s original Marathi film, and consider ways to tame the source material. For Sairat (2016) was not just a film, it was a searing comment on the way caste politics play out in contemporary India, it had the anger in it to question the way we tell our stories. Bollywood can’t have anything to do with this brand of unseemly anger.
I can bet that two words, “underplay caste”,were uttered (in the exact order) more than a couple of times in these meetings. Johar and Khaitan needed to set things right. A film about caste where the girl drives the plot? A film where all the strong supporting characters are women? Nah, the right people (read patriarchs) have to be lionised. The audience has to be insulated from assertive women and their assertive ways.
Thus, Dhadak, the Bollywood adaptation of Sairat, was hatched. And what a hot mess of a film it is.
It is set in the Disney version of Udaipur where boys wear bandhani shirts and girls whirl around like dervishes near Instagram-friendly ruins. Madhu (Ishan) the son of a cafe-owner is in love with the posh Parthavi (Janhvi Kapoor), who has quite a cool resting bitch face. Her father is a rich guy who also happens to belong to higher caste. The girl’s father doesn’t approve of the match, so they run away and settle down in Kolkata. Yes, that’s just about it. Actually, that’s what Khaitan’s gutless, insincere and bigoted screenplay makes Sairat to be. When it was much, much more.
Dhadak doesn’t tell you about the struggle the young girl from Sairat, Archie (a brilliant Rinku Rajguru) goes through, before she accepts her new life. Dhadak doesn’t tell you that Sairat’s Archie is not just a privileged brat in the 1980s Bollywood heroine mould, she is assertive and has an inherent sense of justice. Dhadak doesn’t tell you about the fault lines of caste and class that divide a small town in Maharashtra. Dhadak doesn’t make you realise that despite all our progressive pretensions, we are still a nation where a Dalit boy can be lynched for bathing in an upper-caste well.
Instead, it takes the easy route of appropriations. The hero’s friend with a form of disability has to be a comic trope. In Sairat, Langdya, the hero’s best friend is a character that the director invests in. He is a self-aware young man, who is trying to understand what he can expect from life and what he cannot. In Dhadak, Khaitan chooses to turn him into a running joke. Because that’s the only way the Hindi film audience can treat characters who are different from them.
In Sairat, when the young couple are floundering their way across a new city, they are sheltered and mentored by a woman. She is marginalised but she won’t be bogged down. In Dhadak, she is replaced by a good-natured patriarch who indulges his overbearing (and much younger) wife. Khaitan probably doesn’t believe in feminism for the sake of feminism. How cool!
But the biggest crime that Dhadak commits is to make the difference of caste in his star-crossed lovers seem almost incidental. It was more about the difference in their class. A line about honour killing at the end doesn’t really make up for the damage. What a pathetic hack job just so that the real India doesn’t feel too uncomfortable about harbouring caste prejudices. Just so that caste remains a whisper of a topic.
Dhadak, for all its cosmetic pretenses, is not a remake of Sairat. It could never be. Primarily because it doesn’t have the courage or the anger to hold the bull by the horn. It’s just another Dharma film about pretty people singing pretty songs in pretty places.