Ah, young love! I've known it, too. In 1994, at only 5 years old, I remember watching Yamaleela on the silver screen, and I was entranced at first sight. I could not keep my eyes off it. I have loved the big screen for over two decades now and, if anything, my love for it has only increased over time. I have skipped classes and tests in school, and meetings with friends, and absorbed endless amounts of criticism in service of my first love. I was the Romeo and the screen was my Juliet - or heck, I'd follow the Dhadak route and reverse gender stereotypes just so that I could spend my time watching more movies.
With that said, I do understand why Madhukar (Ishaan Khatter) and Parthavi (Jhanvi Kapoor) have such a deep and unexplainable sense of affection for each other. But like my parents, their's too don't see fit to keep them together. Their parents use the age-old barrier of caste to drive a wedge between them. The kids almost immediately sink into despair, and the measures they take to stay together get more desperate as well. Soon after, we are subject to a tame version of both Sairat and Premisthe.
We say this because throughout its run-time Dhadak is fighting a battle with itself. The primary antagonist of the film, Ratan Singh (Ashutosh Rana), spends his time living in affluence, contesting elections and stepping down on "sub-humans" from lower classes. While none of the corrupt officials dusts many of Ratan Singh's crime scenes for prints, we can confidently say that if we did the same with Dhadak, we would find a giant Dharma Productions logo smack-bang in the middle of it. A Karan Johar production warrants gloss and fluff in exchange of grit and realism, and this overpowering need for being larger than life undermines the many subtle nuances a human story like this one requires.
Take, for example, the son of the owner of a restaurant working as a waiter in another one. Regardless of caste, the instant demotion in social strata will result in a shock. This is something most of us have experienced when we are subject to the first bout of unbridled rage from our superiors at the workplace. The feeling we experience while absorbing this moment in its entirety is personal, visceral and raw, and shows us our place in the world when we exit the comfort and protection of our homes. Dhadak shies away from these moments of discomfort and self-discovery, not by tempering them with an upbeat score or visual gags but instead eliminating them from the conversation entirely.
This is doubly frustrating because, firstly, writer/director Shashank Khaitan illustrates his handle on the finer aspects of filmmaking in the scenes that precede and follow the interval card. During these moments, the score dies down, the silence shared between the two leads is deafening, and their personal realization of the implications of their actions mimic that of the final shot in The Graduate. There is genuine craftsmanship on display in small spurts, but not enough to make the film compelling on a whole.
Secondly, Jhanvi Kapoor and, to a much larger extent, Ishaan Khatter are throwing everything including the kitchen sink at us in hoping that we empathize with their characters' plights and joys. Holding the nepotism debate at bay for the time being, this duo is a welcome addition to the world of cinema. While Kapoor has some ways to go before she matches the legendary mother, Ishaan Khatter seems more at ease as he is allowed to perform with a lot less pressure. He is both likeable and heart-breaking in all the right ways.
The shot the duo share and the expressions they portray while in a compartment of a train adds so much more to their characters than the shoddy writing ever does. Sadly, this does not extend to the other characters gracing the screen. Madhukar's and Parthavi's friends are played for laughs, and Ashutosh Rana is such a textbook pantomime villain that he comes out of the box with a handlebar moustache. This is a showcase to introduce the young actors to the Indian audience rather than a window into the ugly caste and class system that lurks in our country's underbelly, and that is exemplified by the weak and often forgettable supporting cast.
As we have now learnt, Dhadak takes the easy way out more often than not - and this extends to the movie's auditory and visual departments, too. The film rarely lets itself catch a breath as it inundates itself with score from end to end. Dhadak wants its audience a feel a certain way before something happens on screen that warrants those feelings. The overbearing score is offset by the joyous songs which are peppered with some soon-to-be-iconic shots depicting young love.
But soon enough, the shots start losing their appeal as the film makes the audiences passengers in a sight-seeing tour of Udaipur and Kolkata instead of making them live in the locales the characters inhabit. The beautiful shots never cease, and they soon become the visual embodiment of Sachin dada and Promila aunty shielding the audiences from any discomfort they might have experienced. And that makes the movie's message one to take home but makes the movie itself a take-it-or-leave-it affair.