Badhaai Ho Review: Why Should the Sex Lives of Indian Parents Be a Secret?

Bollywood

Badhaai Ho Review: Why Should the Sex Lives of Indian Parents Be a Secret?

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

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rranged marriage is an industry in India: The practice that was once an obligation for our parents’ generation, is merely an option for ours. Even though, a lot has changed about how India looks at marriage, the archaic assumption that lovelessness accompanies every arranged marriage remains. Somehow, we believe that only love marriages can accommodate the kind of intimate tenderness that exists between a married couple. It’s why the biggest reveal in Amit Sharma’s Badhaai Ho, comes late in the second half: The film’s leads – a middle-aged married couple – who are very much in love, are actually the product of an arranged marriage.

For most of Badhaai Ho, Jitender Kaushik (Gajraj Rao) and his wife, Priyamvada (Neena Gupta) – parents to a 20-something Nakul (Ayushmann Khurrana in a Vicky Donor-meets-Shubh Mangal Savdhan comfort zone) and a 16-year-old – play against type. Neither is their relationship a formal partnership, nor are they on autopilot with each other. Instead, their scenes together bubble with warmth, typical of an intimate courtship. He puts his head on her lap. She listens to his poetry. He leaves everything to console her when she’s upset. Her eyes immediately look out for him at a crowded wedding. He tells her how beautiful she looks when her hair isn’t tied up and she leaves it open. It’s easy to mistake them for young lovers. They are after all, an anomaly: a love story thriving amid the societal expectations of a responsible – and by extension – physically distant married couple.

It’s why the film’s plot – Priyamvada’s unplanned and “embarrassing” pregnancy in her late 40s – is hardly treated as its plot twist. Instead, it’s exploited as a device to expose the hypocritical attitude we harbour toward love and sex. As the film underlines, for most of India, sex is merely a vehicle of reproduction and not an act of love. And it supposedly comes with an age limit – forbidden to couples the minute they become parents. It’s why we don’t think twice before urgently demanding “good news” from newlyweds but balk at the idea of imagining our parents as sexual beings.

Badhaai Ho cleverly highlights this double standard in a song sequence, where the elder Kaushiks’ being affectionate toward each other at a public wedding is juxtaposed with Nakul romancing his girlfriend Renee (a lacklustre Sanya Malhotra) in an empty house. And even though the two sets of lovebirds are essentially mirroring each other, it’s the parents’ expression of love that is frowned upon. Nakul reiterates this universal mindset when he stops mid-sex and goes, “Yeh bhi koi mummy papa ki karne wali cheez hai kya?”

Even though, a lot has changed about how India looks at marriage, the archaic assumption that lovelessness accompanies every arranged marriage remains.

For him, their friends and neighbours, the mere idea of Jitender and Priyamvada having sex – especially after they’ve ticked off their responsibility to procreate – is revolting because it confirms that they derived pleasure out of it. That they refused to allow their roles as caregivers define their identities and instead thought about themselves. More importantly, that they shattered the traditional notion of an arranged marriage being a chore by making their appetite for sex public. (Although, it’s ironic that a film which seeks to normalise sex is prudish in how it implies the act.) It’s why the news of Priyamvada’s pregnancy comes with a patina of shame – her mother-in-law lashes out at her for not having “sharam” and the nosy neighbour links it to Jitendra’s lack of “sharafat”.

Badhaai Ho does a delightful job of excavating how this orthodox tendency to rely on sex only for procreation ends up robbing a woman of her desires. It’s evident in a neighbour’s reaction toward Priyamvada’s pregnancy. Instead of focusing on the unplanned kid, she chooses to highlight the fact that Priyamvada has had sex, with an envious, “Bahut jalan ho rahi hai”. Renee does the same when she makes Nakul realise how unjust it is to expect a woman to forget her needs just because she is also a mother. It’s a brave exposition, although, I was half-expecting the film to delve deeper into the minds of married men and women and unpack their differing reactions to the pregnancy: Priyamvada is shamed for her bump while Jitender is allowed to brandish his studness.

But Badhaai Ho, which attempts to ask, “Why do Indians acknowledge love and intimacy only when it is young?” does justice to itself by casting two senior actors as the film’s leads. It makes a statement against the ageism that pervades Hindi cinema, suppressing it from writing fascinating older characters. Badhaai Ho could change that: Both Gajraj Rao and Neena Gupta outperform their younger peers, delivering comic performances that are soaked in both sentimentality and empathy. If Seema Pahwa and Pankaj Tripathi were the de-facto Bollywood parents of last year, then Rao and Gupta are this year’s revelations. Like their predecessors, they don’t just normalise sex, but also go ahead and have it.

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