Within two minutes of Raksha Bandhan’s opening, you are confused: is this 2022, or 1962?
A film featuring a man with four younger sisters, thinking of only one thing, How To Get Them ‘Married Off’, and the extent he has to go to that end, is the focus of ‘Raksha Bandhan’.
It’s not as if you do not have brothers who are completely devoted to their sisters’ welfare in this day and age. Sibling love has always been a strong element in Hindi cinema. But both the way the plot plays out, and even more importantly, how it is treated, pushes us back in time, and not in a salutory way.
Lala Kedarnath (Akshay Kumar) runs his ‘chaat-ki-dukaan’ in Chandni Chowk with a solo USP: all expectant women who eat his ‘gol-gappas’ will deliver sons. Boom. There goes your first gong; your jaw drops. This is just the beginning, of course. Within seconds, Lalaji waltzes into his house, ensconced in a narrow gali, labelling his unmarried sisters by their physical characteristics: one is overweight, the other is dark, the third is a hoyden; only the oldest, the ‘achcha bacchcha’ (good girl) is naturally the only one who is fair and demure. Nope, not kidding.
So, this is what we get. Lalaji negotiating the ‘burden’ of his ‘unbyaahi behens’ on the one hand, and on the other, trying to balance his filial duties with his own desires. A childhood sweetheart (Bhumi Pednekar), waiting in the wings, her loudmouth father (Neeraj Sood) hovering. When there are marriages to be arranged with cash and kind changing hands, there have to be marriage brokers (Seema Pahwa). And how can dowry deaths be far behind?
I’m not sure what made me more uncomfortable — the mothballed plot detailing, the contrivances, the high-pitched melodrama which used to be part and parcel of movies we thought we had deep-sixed decades back; or the conviction that low-rent family dramas, with their uneasy mix of humour and crassness, hugely popular at one time, is the way out for a beleaguered Bollywood.
Lalaji being much older than the women he is surrounded by, is given a reason when we are well into the film, leading to more sniffles. A funeral provides everyone a chance to have a good cry. Finally, once everyone on screen has been wrung out of the last tear, a few rays of positivity appear. Remember the standard method used to shove in a shard of progressiveness well after the film had bludgeoned us with its saccharine? Here too, once the three-fourth mark is safely over, after the loss of a young girl and, wait for it, a kidney, the film suddenly becomes a beacon for girls to stand on their own feet, and fight the evils of dowry.
Well, hurrah, but this better-late-than-never change of heart feels like a calculated after-thought, to keep the carping so-called progressives happy after the supposedly traditional types have had their fill.
What keeps us going, in as much as it does, is the absolute commitment that Akshay displays in his role of ‘bada bhaiyya’, not slipping out of his character even once. The ladies aren’t too bad either, whenever they get a chance to get in a word edgewise. When they are shown to be their own persons, owning their size and shade, the film shifts welcome gears. You wish there was more of this.
You end up asking, is this the only way that the ‘bhaiyya mere, rakhi ka bandhan toh nibhaana’ vibe can be top-lined for today’s audiences?
Raksha Bandhan movie cast: Akshay Kumar, Bhumi Pednekar, Sadia Khatib, Sahejmeen Kaur, Neeraj Sood, Sahil Mehta
Raksha Bandhan movie director: Aanand L Rai
Raksha Bandhan movie rating: 1.5 stars