She’s got perfectly set hair, immaculate make up and is dressed in a flattering, fitted pink kurta. He’s bowled over. Pink is her colour, he says, clearly smitten.
He sweeps her off her feet with his liberal attitude, something unexpected in Kanpur. Aarti Shukla (Kriti Kharbanda), who doesn’t want to marry because she wants to pursue a career, surprises herself by accepting the match of Satyendra Mishra (Rajkummar Rao).
He is young, idealistic and obedient. Shukla, impressed by his progressive mindset, is better educated than him and keeps correcting his awkward English.
The courtship is adorable, with all its small-town innocence intact. Sharing of coffee cups, making plans for the honeymoon and discovering the best friend in one another.
Simultaneously, the Shukla and Mishra families are engaged in a cold dowry negotiation. Marry a family lower than you in status and you can be sure the girl and her family will always be in check, says one character as he’s suggesting a match for his nephew.
In this stratum of society, securing a government job is like winning the lottery. It’s interesting to see how it’s Satyendra’s mother who is determined to uphold and exploit traditions of dowry and how Aarti’s otherwise unyielding father bends to the pressure of a prestigious match.
Satyendra and Aarti seem oblivious to this, somehow, and carry on smiling sweetly and making plans for the future. She is bright, but limited by her father’s (Govind Namdeo) old-fashioned beliefs. So when she passes her PSC exam (Public Service Commission) in the first attempt, it’s both a matter of pride and the catalyst for a complete shakedown.
After many possible interval points, we come to the designed one and then transition to five years later. The runaway bride is now a revered government officer but a graft charge is likely to destroy her career. During the course of the investigation, she is reunited with Satyendra.
It’s a moment that should have carried emotional weightage, but Kriti Kharbanda’s still-perfectly set hair, immaculate make up and tightly draped sarees are a distraction. Maybe they distracted me because I didn’t really understand what Aarti was about. A successful, independent woman who had taken charge of her future should have shown more chutzpah. But she seemed short in self-confidence and high on tears.
Ratnaa Sinha directs a film written by Kamal Pandey that suffers from the second half malaise. The screenplay is as twisted as a telephone wire. A breakdown in communication in the modern age of saturated connectivity is hard to swallow.
Sure you may not connect with someone on the phone but who doesn’t use email/ SMS/ snail mail? The schizophrenia of Satyendra’s character and Aarti crumbling into a whimpering mess in a starched cotton sari are overplayed and the film becomes rather soap opera-like, with the entire extended family dragged back in.
First-time director Sinha manages to weave in social messages (dowry, gender equality, corruption etc) without becoming preachy, besides reiterating the fact that Aarti passed her PSC exam in the first attempt. However with the lighting and camera work in particular, the scenes often look washed out, and the drama is in parts directed like a TV serial. What keeps proceedings afloat is a supporting cast, including Manoj Pahwa, Vipin Sharma and Navni Parihar, who interpret some well-written characters ably.
Kharbanda does not infuse qualities into Aarti that would have you supporting her, not even when she hits her lowest point. You are told she is intelligent, but her actions hardly demonstrate that characteristic.
Rao’s Satyendra shows two shades. He starts off as the youthful, warm-hearted young man unaware of the biases towards him as a boy child waiting to come of age. In the latter half he’s the cold-hearted and bitter officer determined to bring down the Mishras who so badly humiliated his family. Rao interprets both with expected nuance and control.