Thursday, August 15, 2019

In which "Baby" manages a rundown sex clinic

[Did this short piece for India Today about the new film Khandaani Shafakhana and a new crop of comedy-dramas that try to normalise conversations around sex]


Shilpi Dasgupta’s Khandaani Shafakhana opens with the very word “sex” – pronounced “sheksh” – drawing shudders of revulsion from small-town medical representatives who want nothing to do with a clinic that brings such “chee-chee” things into the open. From such beginnings, the film moves towards a climactic courtroom discussion where a number of people (including the protesters from that first scene) are so engrossed in arguments and counter-arguments that they barely realise how often they are using this “dirty” word.

Normalising conversations, allowing for the airing of healthier attitudes… such is the intent of this narrative, its arc paralleling the personal growth of its central character (played by Sonakshi Sinha) who goes from being just “Baby” to a Hakim, after she inherits the sex clinic her deceased uncle had run for years. Watching the film, one might conjecture that the medicines Hakim maama (Kulbhushan Kharbanda) dispensed were placebos (or, in cinematic terms, MacGuffins) – the real worth of his treatment lay in how he got people to open up about sex.

Which makes Khandaani Shafakhana the latest in a series of comedy-dramas to deal with sexual issues in a relatively grounded, non-sensationalist manner, following Vicky Donor (sperm donation), Shubh Mangal Saavdhaan (erectile dysfunction) and Badhaai Ho (middle-aged pregnancy and the social embarrassment around it).

The challenge for such a film is to be frank, droll and educative – and to avoid being patronising – even as some of its characters are awkward and closed-minded. Most of these aren’t comedies in an overt sense – the humour lies in the interstices between dramatic situations, and flows from people’s reactions to unexpected events. Sharp, perceptive writing must go with inspired casting (Juhi Chaturvedi’s script for Vicky Donor, married to Annu Kapoor’s performance as the “sperrmmm”-obsessed doctor, comes to mind), and this is naturally a very delicate balance (Kapoor isn’t half as interesting in the new film, where he plays a lawyer). Scenes like the one in Shubh Mangal Saavdhaan where a droopy, tea-soaked biscuit provides visual shorthand for an erectile problem might easily have played like nudge-wink comedy aimed at frontbenchers if the actors involved were not the likable Ayushmann Khurana and Bhumi Pednekar (whose work together so far puts one in mind of such Middle Cinema couples as Farooque Shaikh and Deepti Naval). In Badhaai Ho too, Khurana’s non-threatening personality plays a big part in the effect of such scenes as the one where he finds it hard to have sex (again!) because images of his parents “doing it” crowd his mind.
Khandaani Shafakhana itself is much more interesting in concept than in execution. Its heart is in the right place and it depicts a world not often seen in mainstream Bollywood (small-town Punjab, with a cast of characters that includes a bling-sporting rap-star who is just a wide-eyed boy inside), but it also drags in places, moving between pedantic speech-making and patches of lowbrow but harmless comedy (a customer referring to his sperm sample as “my wiggle-wiggle”; an X-ray of a damaged penis, which Baby’s clueless brother looks at and says, “Such a thin leg?”) – the problem isn’t the low comedy in itself, but that it is rarely done with real conviction; the film keeps holding itself back.
There are stray moments, though, such as a roadside salesman’s patter, which catch something real about the complexities in our society. The interiors of the dilapidated clinic, with its rusted keys and jars, stress the point that sex doesn’t have to be depicted through glamour and sheen – a weary old man in a dusty room can talk interestingly about it. There is a striking shot of Baby perusing her maama’s register of ailments and cures, her head nodding back and forth, almost like someone deep in prayer over a holy book – for her, this IS a religious text, one that can improve society and cleanse people’s minds.
Like its predecessors, though, this film is restrained about the actual mechanics of sex. Perhaps the next step will be a comedy-drama that contains explicit scenes while still being non-gratuitous. Or a true sex farce along the lines of Woody Allen's Everything You Wanted to Know about Sex but were Afraid to Ask – but filtered through a very Indian text such as Mahinder Vatsa’s recent sex-advice book It’s Normal, where things like “No, your clitoris is not an air-pump” may be said in a candid, matter-of-fact way. 

[a post about Vicky Donor is here]

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