Raksha Bandhan wants you to fondly remember the days when Hindi movie plots pivoted on promises made to dying parents and dowry determined whether a wedding could take place. Aanand L Rai’s movie, despite its progressive messaging, sets the clock back in more ways than one.
In a corner of Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi, chaat seller Kedarnath (Akshay Kumar) is serving paani-puri whose consumption guarantees male babies. Kedarnath believes wholly in his sales pitch. He has four sisters and worries every waking minute about rustling up the money needed to pay their dowry.
None of the sisters has a job that might have eased Kedarnath’s perceived burden. At least three of them have what Kedarnath sees as insurmountable flaws. Durga (Deepika Khanna) is overweight. Lakshmi (Smrithi Srikanth) is dark-skinned. Saraswati (Sahejmeen Kaur) is a tomboy. Only the eldest sister, the pale-skinned and dutiful Gayatri (Sadia Khateeb), meets with Kedarnath’s approval.
A contemporary version of self-sacrificing movie brothers of yore, Kedarnath is the responsible sibling who prioritises the happiness of others over his own. He has been in love with Sapna (Bhumi Pednekar) forever, but has told her to wait until he arranges the funds to marry off every one of his sisters.
Although some help comes Kedarnath’s way from wedding organiser Shanu (Seema Pahwa), he has to do most of the heavy lifting on his own. It means working double shifts and enduring the taunts of Sapna’s understandably anxious father (Neeraj Sood).
With a saintly brother like Kedarnath, who cares what the sisters are like? The screenplay, by Kanika Dhillon and Himanshu Sharma, attempts to revisit the regressive themes of old-fashioned melodramas and then subvert them. But neither the contrived conservatism nor the forced progressiveness feels sincere in a film about female empowerment that is steered entirely by a male saviour.
There’s a transactional quality to a narrative set in a mercantile middle-class milieu; a feeling of a manufactured crisis whose roots are barely explored. None of the women appears to have a mind, let alone a spine. They are named after goddesses, Kedarnath proudly says, but the movie is clear about whom they genuflect to.
Kedarnath’s self-inflicted woes spill ever so often out of his home onto the street. The one good thing to come out of the collective hysterics of Kedarnath and his brood is Sumit Basu’s admirable Chandni Chowk set design.
Rai crafts numerous sequences in which characters rush about from one end of the screen to the other. The dialogue, delivered at a volume aimed at waking up the dead, only amplifies its tin-eared quality.
The misjudged humour includes barbs directed by Kedarnath at his sisters (a plump woman is a “double-decker bus”; a dark complexion is equated with “a moonless night”). Helped along by a crisp 110-minute runtime and Akshay Kumar’s valiant sincerity, Raksha Bandhan harps away on the evils of the bride price practice before concluding that in an ideal world, women should be the ones demanding dowry. Irony, which might have lifted a movie that’s often as one-note as Himesh Reshammmiya’s songs, is nowhere in sight.