(Spoiler Alert: This review contains spoilers from Badhaai Do).
Over the years I’ve come to expect little when it comes to queer representation in mainstream Bollywood cinema. When you place a Dostana (2008) next to a Laxmii (2020), very little has changed-- neither are ‘queer cinema’ no matter what they advertise themselves as. So when it came to Badhaai Do, the first reaction was skepticism, the next curiosity, and the third, relief.
Badhaai Do was a pleasant (and emotional) surprise in a sea of disappointing queer content. The film mostly suffers courtesy of scenes it should have left out.
For the uninitiated, Badhaai Do stars Rajkummar Rao as a gay cop and Bhumi Pednekar as a physical education (PE) teacher, who is also queer. The duo decide to enter a marriage of convenience to pacify their family. Such an arrangement where queer people from opposite sexes get married is a ‘lavender marriage’.
Badhaai Do & Lavender Marriages
All debates aside, lavender marriages are a lived reality for queer people, especially in India. Does the normalisation of lavender marriages pose a threat to the fight for same sex marriage? It would. But in Badhaai Do, the lavender marriage is only used as a catalyst not as a ‘quick fix’.
Like Shardul Thakur (Rajkummar Rao) and Suman Singh (Bhumi Pednekar), an arrangement like this is often the only way out.
In their ‘marriage’, there is space for both of them to pursue their relationships as individuals-- goes to show what wonders having two queer protagonists can do for a film. Chum Darang plays Rimjhim, Suman’s partner, and she, too, finds a place in the ‘marriage’, as is her right. Of course, there is a nuance to that.
Badhaai Do also used the plot device of the lavender marriage to explore two things: the understanding that queer people can develop as based on their common struggle, and the inherent role privilege plays (in this case, of Shardul being a man) even within the queer community.
There are sequences where he enforces patriarchal ideals on his ‘wife’ Suman who deftly calls him out.
Additionally, the film looks into the patriarchal pressures Shardul and Suman must face from their families, starting with the demand for a child.
What Of The Queer Relationships?
Queer relationships, in Bollywood, have an arduous history, and that was an expectation I had of Badhaai Do too, especially since it’s a comedy.
Queer characters have been used either as comic relief or antagonists for years. Even in Dream Girl, Ayushmann, known for his ‘woke’ choice in films, chides the one queercoded character for ‘choosing’ to identify as a lesbian because of bad relationships with men.
At a time when trolls throw around the phrase ‘homosexuality is a new generation fad,’ it is so refreshing to see two characters who are not teenagers explore their sexuality. Within that space also, the film explores two storylines: Shardul is in a long-term relationship while Suman is still looking for love.
Badhaai Do is a film that seems interested in making you laugh with them instead of laughing at your expense. And the relationships are explored with immense sensitivity to the point where some scenes seemed to reflect real life.
When Suman sleeps next to Rimjhim after a particularly nasty fight, the vulnerability of that scene alone is enough to make one cry. Suman referring to Rimjhim and herself as a married couple also shows how the house they live in has created a safe space for Suman too, even if temporarily, she gives in to her desire to have a home and family with the woman she loves.
Suman and Rimjhim also go to a queer party where the former can finally be herself, a woman in a relationship with another; further reinforcing the need for safe spaces.
The scene where Suman and Shardul can sit next to their partners, the whole façade dropped, is crucial to the film’s journey especially to show that the lavender marriage was a starting point for the duo and not the end. Even their coming-out sequences reflected the anxiety and fear that most LGBTQIA+ people face.
How True Is ‘Badhaai Do’ to LGBTQIA+ Struggle?
It is near impossible to document every queer person’s struggle under one umbrella but the film tries to be empathetic to Shardul, Suman, and Rimjhim.
The simple act of holding a partner’s hand which might be a reflex to a heterosexual couple can be terrifying for a queer couple. News reports from across the world encapsulate the dangers any display of non-heteronormative desire presents to people.
Badhaai Do set in a town in Dehradun has placed its characters in situations where they must grapple with this reality- Shardul is a cop and is a gay man in a casteist and Islamophobic family and Suman’s family situation is no better.
Suman tries her hand at a dating app and ends up meeting a man posing as a woman who proceeds to blackmail her. This, again, isn’t a far-fetched situation. Navigating a dating app poses perils for queer people, especially if they belong to minority groups.
Shardul is a product of his upbringing and his workplace; his hypermasculinity serves a dual purpose. On the offset, it challenges the idea that gay men must be feminine (See: Abhishek Bachchan in Dostana or Rishi Kapoor’s character in Student of the Year).
The other aspect of Shardul’s hypermasculinity is seemingly a manifestation of internalised homophobia. Queer people often face the pressure to conform to heterosexist gender norms and can often direct that criticism inwards. This is also what makes a scene in the film where Shardul opens up to Suman so heart-wrenching.
Shardul is hypervigilant, constantly afraid that his secret will be revealed and he projects that hypervigilance onto Suman. In this, Rimjhim is affected. The film talks about Rimjhim’s reaction to her partner being in a ‘marriage’, no matter how pretend it might be.
Queer couples are often portrayed as being miserable or ecstatic; in Rimjhim and Suman’s relationship, the writers (director Harshavardhan Kulkarni, Suman Adhikary, and Akshat Ghildia) find a comfortable middle.
With the fight, that rises from Rimjhim’s natural insecurities about her partner’s ‘marriage’, and the silent reconciliation that follows, their relationship was given a depth that is rare in Bollywood. And thank God for the sensual, yet sensitive treatment given to Suman and Rimjhim, or Shardul and his (I’ll keep this a mystery) partner’s courtship.
Let’s Address the Straight Flag in The Room (or Parade)
The presence of a ‘straight pride’ flag in the film’s trailer led to much-deserved uproar on social media. The ‘straight pride’ flag has been used by anti-gay organisations and individuals to oppose the very identity of the LGBTQIA+ community. The fact that the flag made it to the film’s trailer is shameful and goes to show that there were clearly some gaps in research.
However, the makers removed the flag from the final cut, so…bare minimum achieved.
Then again, when Shardul asks Suman for her ‘gender’ in the police station, she replies with, “Aapko kya lagta hai? (What do you think?)” which is another instance that exposes a lack in research since physical markers don’t indicate the gender someone identifies as. Since Suman is playing a cis woman, this scene didn’t need to make the cut.
The pride parade in itself plays a pivotal role in the characters’ storyline. It was one of my favourite sequences from the film so without revealing much, it depicts how ‘free’ a queer person can feel amidst their own while also glancing at Shardul’s aforementioned ‘hypervigilance’.
There is also a scene where Rimjhim’s character says something on the lines of Shardul ‘looking bisexual’ which is an instance of a scene that should’ve just been left out of the film.
Another instance would be the scene where Shardul gets physically abusive with his partner (I say this should have been left out purely because Badhaai Do does not give it enough space for discussion).
Naturally, the film does open itself up to criticism for having a predominantly heterosexual crew and cast.
Queer people deserve to helm the stories based on their lives but I couldn’t help but wonder, is the Indian audience in a place to watch a film about queer relationships that isn’t banking on big names like that of Rajkummar and Bhumi?
However, that is still a milestone to achieve. Rajkummar Rao and Bhumi Pednekar deserve the praise they’re getting for their acting since they did channel considerable empathy for the story they were part of. Also, seeing families with their kids in the audience watching a film like Badhaai Do as opposed to films like Laxmii is a relief.
All in All… ‘Badhaai Do’ Works.
For a long time, Indian viewers looked for homosocial depictions (used here for same-sex interactions that were never inherently expressed as queer) to create a niche in mainstream cinema. It is in this restructuring of mass entertainers that LGBTQIA+ people created a concept of ‘queer cinema’.
With films like Badhaai Do, that niche widens and lets more people in. So many queer films are positioned as films that will ‘educate the masses’- for those outside the community who must ‘let LGBTQIA+ people in’. But this film seems like it doesn't leave the community out, by centering the gaze on their stories.
Is it a perfect queer film? Absolutely not; it has its hits and misses. But it is worth the watch.