The two things necessary for a good marriage are sex and money, observes a key character in Shaadi Mein Zaroor Aana. Both feature in strange ways in Ratnaa Sinha’s debut movie, which sets up its plot with confidence and coherence before going off the rails in spectacular and painful fashion.

Money drives a couple apart, and a sadomasochistic attachment to each other keeps them in each other’s orbit in the latest study of aspiration and prejudice in small-town India. The arranged marriage between Kanpurites Arti (Kriti Kharbanda) and Satyendra (Rajkummar Rao) fosters love even before the nuptials. Taking a cue from the 1990s movies that both adore, the pair quickly progress through the various stages of romance. They are at the point where the man asks the woman if he can kiss her and she nearly obliges – before turning her head away at the right moment so that he can sink his lips into her eyebrows instead.

Arti and Satyendra are too distracted to notice – or care – that Arti’s father (KK Raina) is pushing himself into debt to pay her Rs 25-lakh dowry. Satyendra readily agrees to Arti’s request (a plea, really) that she be allowed to work after the wedding and conveniently forgets that his mother despises working women. Arti is too lovestruck to wonder how she, an aspiring government officer, will remain satisfied with Satyendra’s status as a government clerk, and she doesn’t object to the dowry demand either.

Despite the niggling problems at the script level, the pre-interval section holds firm because of the smooth direction and solid performances. Eventually, egged on by her sister Abha (Nayani Dixit), Arti flees what seemed to have been a match made in hell, only to enter another netherworld – the one in which her story fades into insignificance and is overtaken by the man’s.

Shaadi Mein Zaroor Aana (2017).

The money bits done, the movie moves into an unequal war of the sexes. The post-interval section is a torturous account of Satyendra’s vengeance against Arti, extracted through the good offices of the government. Satyendra has elevated himself to officer status and is overseeing corruption allegations against Arti. He uses his superior position to harass Arti in countless ways and even propositions her, all to avenge his humiliation. Satyendra is as willing a sadist as Arti is a whimpering masochist, who all but clings to her master’s feet to retain her job and get back into his heart.

The outrage over the dowry demand against Arti is forgotten during the plummet into unintended farce; her ambition to be an officer nullified by her flight; Satyendra’s spite legimitised by his sense of hurt.

Rajkummar Rao is characteristically effective as the lovelorn clerk whose heart hardens after rejection, and his job is made easier by Kriti Kharbanda’s watered-down character and weak acting skills. The surrounding cast, including Govind Namdeo and Manoj Pahwa, provide adequate back-up, and Nayani Dixit is especially good as the older sister who unsuccessfully tries to infuse feminist ideals into Abha. For a movie that does a better job of balancing a jilted groom’s hurt pride with the almost-bride’s professional ambitions, watch Badrinath Ki Dulhania, released earlier this year.