In our column, Through Her Looking Glass, we try to decode iconic films from a female perspective. The series will attempt to understand the agency each female character holds in the film's narrative (mostly, from a contemporary standpoint) and whether the purported meaning of the film alters under such a viewing.
Why Badhaai Ho?
Priyamvada (Neena Gupta) runs into an unplanned pregnancy at the age of 52. She decides to keep the baby, despite the embarrassment of her kids and society at large, and the dignity with which she soldiers on with the pregnant belly makes her a protagonist worth rooting for.
But in the second half, her quiet resilience gets taken for granted as her experiences and feelings are sidelined. We do see enough of her on screen but the narrative is blind to the struggles, physical and psychological, and not just social and emotional, of a woman who becomes pregnant in her early 50s. The second-hand embarrassment felt by her son Nakul (Ayushmann Khurrana), along with his romantic track, gets centrestage. Priyamvada's pregancy becomes a catalyst, and never the focal point, of the conflict in the film.
A year after Amit R Sharma's Badhaai Ho, Raj Mehta's Good Newwz saw a Hindi film deal with the intricacies of what a woman undergoes to become a mother. Both Deepti (Kareena Kapoor Khan) and Monica (Kiara Advani) take the IVF route to conceive babies, though a goof-up at the clinic lands them in a soup. Throughout the film, we see the two husbands Varun (Akshay Kumar) and Honey (Diljit Dosanjh) either engage in a game of one-upmanship or force their regressive, insensitive diktats for pregnant women on their wives.
At the end of the film, Deepti takes charge of the situation and turns the male-obsessed narrative on its head. She vents out at Varun after he confesses he does not feel attached to the baby. She rants about all the physiological and psychological hurdles a woman has to endure every day for the sake of becoming a biological mother. "You can't even imagine the pain. But go through that only because we know once we see our baby, it will all be worth it."
This feminist, and personal, voice was what evaded Badhaai Ho because it was too busy spelling out the social, external ramifications of a mother turning pregnant at 52.
The conflict in Badhaai Ho is not as much with the husband as it is with the rest of family and society. Priyamvada's husband Jeetender (Gajraj Rao) is a darling. He completely respects his wife's decision to not abort the baby despite the financial and age-related limitations. "Kasht tera hai, final decision bhi tera hi hoga," he tells her. The reaction on Priyamvada's face has a tinge of disappointment. Unlike Varun in Good Newwz, Jeetender realises the toll carrying and giving birth to a baby takes on a woman's health. But Priyamvada still feels let down that he absolves himself of his responsibility and considers pregnancy 'her pain' alone.
Gajraj Rao and Neena Gupta in Badhaai Ho
However, Jeetender proves himself to be a supportive husband, who keeps by his side with the same silent tenacity that she displays throughout the period. He never asks her how she is feeling as their communication is dominated by a wordless exchange of glances. This has a lot to do with the fact that they are socialising at a wedding, and not within the intimate familiar environment of their bedroom, for the rest of the film. Having witnessed the deep-seated warmth in their bedroom conversation on the night she conceives the baby, one yearns for more of such uninhibited interplay.
This writer does not suggest that Priyamvada should demand from her man Ben & Jerry's dark chocolate ice cream that she is craving at midnight like Preity Zinta's Ambar does in Siddharth Anand's Salaam Namaste (2005). As a cue, the director did not have to look too far. In another Neena Gupta film that released around the same time, Khujli, she is seen as a wife who loves reading Fifty Shades of Grey and fantasizes about trying the kinky foreplay devices on her husband (Jackie Shroff). But their age comes in the way.
Badhaai Ho may explore intersectionality but it decidedly attacks ageism more than sexism.
The sexism takes the forefront only in flashes, when Jeetender's mother (Surekha Sikri) takes a dig at Priyamvada by saying the wife should have been more cautious since she is more educated, but is still busy "wearing lipstick" at a time when she should have relinquished desire. Or when Priyamvada's sisters-in-law pass snide remarks in the guise of constructive advice as she takes on all of it without a word.
These examples underline the fact that society judges a woman, particularly a mother, by different standards, compared to their male counterparts. But the woman in Priyamvada, buried under years of patriarchy and middle class expectations, never gets a rousing moment throughout the narrative, barring when she decides to keep the baby.
It helps that Gupta plays the part since she has had a similar real-life experience of deciding to raise a child, that too singlehandedly at a very young age. But the situation is completely different. While Gupta had to juggle between financial sustainability and single motherhood, Priyamvada's concerns are limited to her age. Unlike Anushka Sharma's Aarfa in Ali Abbas Zafar's Sultan (2016), she does not have to forfeit an ambitious career because she turned pregnant. Her feminism does not arrive at a conflict because of her ambition, but only because of age.
What remains constant in the film is a society that looks down upon her choice. Whether it was in exchange of a flourishing career or the overstated "ghar ki izzat," the woman is questioned for first, her sexual desire, and second, her decision to not brush the 'misfire' under the carpet.
She is rebuked by not only the mother-in-law and extended family but also her kids. Given the Hindi film industry's obsession with youth, Priyamvada's story soon gives way to Nakul as he struggles to come to terms with his parents' active sexual life. The awkwardness permeates his own relationship with girlfriend Rene (Sanya Malhotra), and then snowballs into a somewhat forced conflict with her mother (Sheeba Chadha).
The efforts to make the film as much, or in fact more, about Nakul becomes very clear as the viewer even forgets what Priyamvada must be battling during the latter months of pregnancy. She is shown crying only once Nakul hints at how embarrassed he is of his parents. This reduces the woman's struggles to just those of a tainted bond with her kid.... who eventually hijacks her story.
The woman at the centre of the story is not given the corresponding attention. Yes, she may not enjoy significant agency in the patriarchal setup she finds herself in, but the idea of a fictional feminist story is also to rise above the social constraints and address freely what women want.
Badhaai Ho takes long strides towards suggesting that a woman can be a mother at any age she wants to be. But the question that escapes its attention is whether a mother can be a woman at the age she wants to be.
All images from Facebook.