The best joke in Raaj Shaandilyaa’s Dream Girl lands early: its hero is also the heroine.
Mathura resident Karam (Ayushmann Khurrana) has an unerring ability to impersonate female voices. He is the local favourite to play women’s roles in mythological stage productions. When Karam gets a job in which he has to pretend to be a woman at a call centre that runs a “friendship service”, he soon becomes the employee of the year.
Karam/Pooja has a warm and inviting purr that brings out the poet in the policeman, the singer in the landlord, and the lesbian in the magazine editor. Soon, everybody in this corner of Mathura seems to be grinning into their phones and trembling with delight each time Pooja is at the other end. But naturally, every one of them wants to marry the woman they have never met.
Karam, meanwhile, has successfully wooed heiress Mahie (Nushrat Bharucha). She is blind and deaf to his other life – Karam is clever that way – and is such a peripheral character in this all-male universe that she might as well have not existed.
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Among the token females in Raaj Shaandilyaa’s rumbustious but uneven comedy are the shrewish wife of the poetic policeman, Mahie’s alcohol-loving grandmother, and a magazine editor, who hates men so much that replacing them with women is the next logical step.
Dream Girl, which is also the title of a Hema Malini-Dharmendra 1970s hit, wades into the gender divide without a plan or a purpose. The movie’s aims include supplying a joke every minute, which it often does, and delivering a comic take on urban loneliness, which it doesn’t quite do. The screenplay, by Shaandilyaa and Nirmaan D Singh, has a sitcom quality that attests to Shaandilyaa’s vast experience in television, which includes sketches for Comedy Circus Ke Superstars. As he stretches a slim premise over 132 minutes, Shaandilya produces some smartly observed character sketches, unthinkingly runs down women, and quite consciously plays on Muslim stereotypes for easy laughs.
The movie coasts along as a never-ending series of inchoate but also very funny vignettes up until the moment when a character embraces Islam to better impress Pooja, whom he believes is actually Zubeida. The character’s transformation into the henna-haired and Urdu-loving romantic produces some of the movie’s most difficult scenes, and is about as sensitive and empowering as Karam’s ability to trump his hard-working female colleagues.
Karam displaces the other women at the call centre with his skills, and his success is one of the many ways in which Dream Girl undermines women while claiming to celebrate them. The most memorable characters are all male. Even the magazine editor Roma (Nidhi Bisht) has a bass voice and a manly air to her.
Nushrat Bharucha is a purely ornamental presence, and is poorly matched with Ayushmann Khurrana, who has better chemistry with Manjot Singh, playing his cynical friend, Annu Kapoor, who portrays Karam’s father, and Vijay Raaz, as the poetry-spouting policeman.
Khurrana has staked his career on playing unorthodox leading men, and has tackled sperm donation, erectile dysfunction, faked blindness and forced marriage, all along upending the expectations from the average screen hero. His manic energy and believable Everyman persona are in full-throttle mode in Dream Girl, and they steer the movie through its uncomfortable portions and anything-for-a-laugh moments. Although the movie is determined to be lightweight and misses the opportunity to play Karam’s gender-bending for anything more than giggles, Khurrana fleetingly suggests that there is something more at stake here than a man who can do what women do, only better.