On 'Veere Di Wedding' And What Could Come Next
At the time of writing, Veere Di Wedding has completed a fantastic week-long run at the box office after having opened to a phenomenal 360 million rupee weekend. Oddly enough, its success hasn’t prompted the nation’s women to go on a profanity-laden misandrist rampage; most grandmothers remain out of the Intensive Care Unit; and the country’s moral and cultural fabric hasn’t been irreparably rent (in new places, at least). Instead, people of all genders are clearly enjoying the film, a lighthearted dramedy about four best friends who navigate love, loss and growing up in its two-hour runtime. Judging by the dramatically irate reactions from some quarters, though, you’d almost be forgiven for thinking that this film were an affront to both feminism and #allmen, to good taste and even better Indian values.
The overwhelmingly male tribe of trade analysts, after viewing its trailer, declared Veere Di Wedding entirely too vulgar for large-scale public consumption (although they’d greeted the equally profane, gleefully misogynistic trailer of the latest offering from Luv Ranjan, peddler of the Pyaar Ka Punchnama series, with great enthusiasm just months earlier). Do we imagine that the trade reaction to the same film, with its buzzed-about trailer (female-aimed and -fronted mainstream cinema in Bollywood is so scarce that every line reading, every outfit, every dance move and cast interview seemed to become a subject of scrutiny and critique on social media), its quotable one-liners, and a hit item number rapped by Badshah, would be as tepid if it starred four male actors? I doubt it.
Meanwhile, the Men’s Rights/Sanskaar faction of Bollywood Twitter raged (let’s just say that the presence of self-admitted right-wing baiter Swara Bhasker and the divisive and outspoken self-identified feminist Sonam Kapoor in the movie didn’t quite ameliorate their furor); and noted film critics who had blithely body-shamed female actors in their writing on previous occasions, lamented upon Veere’s release that its idea of feminism (a word not once uttered in the movie) was “misguided” and that women drinking and smoking and cussing and generally foregoing the self-censorship they’re often obligated to perform in real life and on film, was just a poor simulacrum of ”men behaving badly.” Never mind that male-fronted films are never subjected to similar tests of sanskaariness or stringency of ideology. Somehow this film needed to at once be tasteful, unproblematic, all-round unobjectionable feminist representation, the femme answer to Dil Chahta Hai and Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, and, well, non-existent.
Well, Veere Di Wedding does exist, and it is a bawdy, irrepressible good time. Skeptics were right about it being no Dil Chahta Hai, however. It’s much more of a romp – dense with jokes and quips, lighter on the drama and the plotting, and the stakes are ostensibly lower. But I hope you won’t let the lightness of the film fool you into dismissing it. We have been conditioned to view as worthy a cinema of conflict rather than a cinema of conversation. It isn’t at all a coincidence that conflict in cinema arises from the male ego and id, and the conversations we see infrequently and dismiss as frivolous are between women and are about the concerns of women. Given all this, Veere’s energetic insistence that female friendship, female conversation, and unsanitized female joy are worthy and productive feels almost radical in a Bollywood film. Consider this: Films centering one fully realized female protagonist are scarce enough, but here we have four, all written and played with bite, wit, and generosity of spirit.
As Avni, Sonam Kapoor delivers a screwball comic turn that crackles with barely repressed neurosis. Right from her prim little smile of satisfaction when she gets her dance steps for her best friend’s sangeet performance right to the manically chipper face she puts on for a potential suitor, her performance is brittle marvel. Shikha Talsania, who’s been a jobbing actress for a while, breaks through here with line readings that are equal parts wry and warm; she ought to have entire series centered around her considerable talents. Kareena Kapoor, who plays reluctant bride Kalindi and the film’s nominal lead, reminds us why she’s an indispensable movie star; she underplays her part for most of the film but turns up that famous magnetism just when the film needs a jolt of electricity and uses her great face and her arch line delivery to take spin comedic gold out of potentially throwaway moments.
And then there’s Swara Bhasker, who gets the film’s biggest lines, its most outrageous costumes (the costuming department does yeoman’s work throughout in cleverly establishing character and milieu through some eye-popping fashion), and its most talked-about moment and wastes none of it; she is a star, sexy and wily and original, if I’ve ever seen one. These women make screen alchemy happen with their disparate acting styles. One is fully convinced that they’ve known, ribbed, talked over, and adored each other all their lives.
The core crew is surrounded by a memorable, warmly portrayed cast of characters. Notably, Vivek Mushran, yesteryear heartthrob, plays Kalindi’s uncle and one half of a same-gender couple that is portrayed with a bracingly casual absence of judgment. The men in this film, by and large, are allowed the nuance and standout comic moments their female equivalents in dudebro buddy-comedies are generally denied. Vishwas Kinni, in particular, is a revelation as a patently Unsuitable Boy who breaks through Avni’s teflon-clad snobbery. (I must note here that this is unmistakably a film about the Haves; almost everyone is a well-heeled member of Delhi’s insular upper class. Bhasker’s Bentley-driving, couture-sporting character describes men on Tinder based on their photos as “a driver” and “below [the] poverty line”; while the character is supposed to be a bit of a feckless asshole, and her characterization is faithful to a certain kind of loaded, politically incorrect type found in abundance in big South Asian cities, the jokes still rankle.)
Sumeet Vyas, who plays Kalindi’s fiancé, gets a stellar scene in which Kalindi and he “consciously uncouple” with the sort of love and kindness that we never get to see during a movie breakup. (In general, the film takes a nice, genially realistic tack with disagreement. After a fight that would have been a different film’s dramatic crux, for example, the group doesn’t sulk and splinter for a chunk of the film’s run time; instead, the women do what you or I would do and hang out together and talk and laugh and joke away the rancor (except they do it at a luxury resort in Phuket and we’d do it on our living room couches). The characters ultimately carry this spirit of candid conversation into the other relationships of their life, thus underscoring what may be the film’s only “message” – talk things out with your loved ones and give them space to make their own mistakes. The de-emphasizing of sturm und drang may make for a slack, slightly facile second-half, but is in keeping with the movie’s ethos.
Veere Di Wedding has its limitations and weaknesses (the overuse of static, soap opera-style reaction shots is one). But it is a sort of escapist cinema that actually allows someone like me to escape. I am all for cinema that’s just a good time at the movies, but I just don’t know what the joke is in a Rohit Shetty film or what to applaud at in Salman Khan’s latest exercise in outsized heroism. But in Veere, writers (Nidhi Mehra and Mehul Suri and director Shashank Ghosh (much more at ease with the material here than he was with the rickety albeit charming Khoobsurat) have fashioned joyous wish-fulfillment beats out of relationship dynamics I can recognize and humor I know how to laugh at.
The primarily female audience has long been low-priority for Bollywood’s mainstream cinema; the films often explicitly cater to men, who feel permitted to dance in the aisles, throw coins at the screen when the heroine is performing a “sexy” item number, and whistle when the hero makes an off-color joke about the female anatomy. Veere’s raucous femme sensibility allows for an underserved audience to have the same sort of blessedly undecorous communal experience. I cannot stress enough how delightful it is to watch a Bollywood movie with an audience full laughing hooting, clapping women.
The heartening commercial success of Veere Di Wedding comes in a year where female actors in Bollywood have taken incredible, mostly profitable risks both in front of and behind the camera. Rani Mukerji reminded a skittish industry once again that a leading lady with a husband and kids at home can carry a movie. Deepika Padukone’s Padmaavat may have turned out to be heavier on her co-star Ranveer Singh, but let’s not forget the enormously expensive film, which went on to gross close to 3 billion rupees at the Indian box office, was named for her character, spotlighted her in its promotional material, and resulted in her becoming the target of violent threats. Anushka Sharma starred in and produced Pari, a strange, beguiling horror-romance that was richer, in both ideas and images, than any film I’ve seen this year.
But can this uptick in representation and the consequent success lead to substantive systemic change in the Hindi-language film industry? Sonam Kapoor lamented that it was incredibly difficult for her producer sister Rhea to raise money for Veere Di Wedding in spite of the fact that Kapoor had just come off Neerja’s success and Kareena Kapoor has been a major star for close to two decades now. She noted that Dhishoom, an action comedy starring John Abraham and Varun Dhawan, had had a far easier time finding backers. Funnily enough, Veere has already outpaced the lifetime gross of October, Dhawan’s spring release this year, and is set to out-earn Abraham’s Parmanu, which released the week before it. I doubt, however, that its success will raise Kapoor’s asking fee to anywhere near what Dhawan, who has been anointed the next superstar, or even Abraham, whose box office record as a solo lead is spotty at best, command. Success comes with a ceiling for the female actor in Bollywood; the trade claims that she can’t open films, but she is rarely afforded the opportunity, since strong parts in viable projects are hard to come by; and when she does find success in the rare female-centered film, she is not inundated with even more exciting work as a male counterpart would be and risks pricing herself out of a market that deems her replaceable if she raises her remuneration.
The industry is openly disinterested in cultivating female equity. The top female actors in the industry often make just about as much as a middle-rung male star. Leading men with a string of flops behind them have franchises built around them and are paid the equivalent of a mid-scale female-fronted film’s budget for a single film. It is a common practice for producers to allot a female actor less spacious rooms than her male co-star on a location shoot. In the recent past, prominent male actors have skirted the question of pay parity, and one of the nation’s biggest male superstars has posited, in order to justify the glaring age gap between him and his female leads, that market forces push leading ladies over forty out of the industry. Note, if you will, trade pundits’ hesitation to label current golden boy Varun Dhawan’s October a turkey; they had no such qualms when it came to Anushka Sharma’s Pari. Small wonder, then, that tone of the coverage for Veere’s brisk initial box office has ranged from frank surprise to grudging admiration.
Its success is undeniable, though, and provides an exciting template for growth and equity-building. What if more A-list female actors teamed up to actualize ambitious mainstream entertainment? Most male stars of the first order are hesitant to work with each other or are so expensive that a film with more than one of them is often financially infeasible. The days of Amar Akbar Anthony are long behind us. But filmgoer interest in films with multiple major stars interacting onscreen (and on promotional tours) is real. And top actresses are much more willing to collaborate than their male counterparts; Katrina Kaif has apparently mentioned to Aditya Chopra that he ought to develop a big-budget multi-heroine project, and Alia Bhatt, coming off her own “100 crore hit” (Raazi, directed by Meghna Gulzar) has mentioned that she wants to work with both Kaif and Padukone.
Getting movies that are aimed at a broad audience funded and off the ground may be less challenging (still a chore, though, realistically speaking) if two female leads are doing the selling. And ambitious projects starring women are likely to be less expensive and less compromised than similar ones starring men, because female actors keep their paycheck asks far more realistic and films built around them can remain unconcerned with mythmaking and fan-service. The possibilities are exciting and just about endless. What about, for instance, a buddy cop comedy in the vein of The Heat and The Nice Guys starring Vidya Balan and Katrina Kaif or a dark workplace comedy starring Priyanka Chopra, Anushka Sharma, and Radhika Apte? A world of potentialities is out there, and hopefully Veere Di Wedding is an early little step toward it.