We can imagine how the pitch meeting for this one went. Let’s do yet another movie about a man and a woman navigating the obstacles of modern marriage, but with a difference. Let’s give both parties a shocking secret. Let’s do one better – let’s make him gay and her lesbian.

Badhaai Do introduces into our vocabulary the term “lavender marriage”. Police inspector Shardul (Rajkummar Rao) and physical education teacher Suman (Bhumi Pednekar) forge a union of convenience to please their overbearing families. Since they are more or less the same age and are from the same caste, their relatives are elated.

The wedding is a typically rumbustious affair. Shardul and Suman drive into the sunset and then wonder how to make it work.

The situation is complicated when Suman falls for Rimjhim (Chum Darang). The couple’s woes include nosy neighbours, relatives who turn up unannounced and, more perilously, pressure to produce a child.

Having rushed into wedlock without thinking the arrangement through, Shardul and Suman are stuck in the closet for what seems like an eternity (but is actually 152 minutes).

Badhaai Do title track.

Badhaai Do, directed by Harshvardhan Kulkarni and written by him, Suman Adhikary and Akshat Ghildial, never quite gets a handle on its pacing and tonality. The Suman-Shardul equation is the most short-changed aspect of a movie with far too much on its mind.

Shardul’s expectation of domesticated behaviour from Suman is an interesting but under-explored dynamic. Into a film that champions queer love and the importance of allowing same-sex couples to have children, the makers shoehorn the need for gender equality.

Much of the humour is of the type we have come to expect from movies set in a North Indian urban milieu – Dehradun in Uttarakhand in this case – and revolving around families bursting with narrow-minded busybodies.

Badhaai Do labours in the shadow of other queer-themed comedies, including The Birdcage, The Kids are All Right and Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan. At times cut so fast that you can’t register a gag landing, the movie is at its best when it stops horsing around to regard the emotional cost of pursuing a double life.

Whenever the pace slows down and the compulsion to deliver capitalised quirkiness is set aside, the movie gets richer and more rewarding. Bhumi Pednekar turns out a heartfelt performance, and Chum Darang is good too as Suman’s free-spirited girlfriend. But it’s Rajkummar Rao, with a newly buffed-up body and a wealth of experience, who magnificently reveals the film’s emotional core.

Rajkummar Rao and Bhumi Pednekar in Badhaai Do (2022). Courtesy Junglee Pictures.

Rao smoothly traverses the treacherous waters into which Shardul is so often dunked. The homophobia that has trapped Suman and Shardul is far more believable when Rao is in the frame. In Rao’s clenched jaw and anguished eyes, we get a very real sense of what it means to live a lie.

Some of the scenes have the anarchic quality of Harshvardhan Kulkarni’s screenplay for Vinil Mathew’s Hasee Toh Phasee and his own film Hunterrr. The movie includes a sexy cameo by Gulshan Devaiah, the lead actor of Hunterrr.

Sheeba Chaddha hilariously plays Shardul’s mother Baby, a bundle of vagueness and submissiveness who appears to have been beamed into the present from another time zone. Suman tells her father (Nitish Pandey) that she wishes her own mother (Lovleen Misra) would drop dead.

Perhaps the movie should have just been that – an outrageous comedy that made its points through the absurdity of the crisis that confronts Shardul and Suman. Badhaai Do could have been something else too – a sobering exploration of forced denial. Unlike its homosexual characters, who suffer not from an identity crisis but from their encounters with the outside world, Badhaai Do is neither comfortable in the closet nor sure-footed outside it.

Badhaai Do (2022).