It’s not for nothing that people say Akshay Kumara knows and understands the pulse of its audience and therefore makes films. With his latest release, Raksha Bandhan, Akshay just proves that if a movie has its heart in the right place, it will resonate with audiences. This is not the first time the actor has made a film that is relevant and has a strong social message. Raksha Bandhan touches on the issue of the dowry system in India. But it’s the way director Aanand L Rai chooses to tell the story, interweaving the most delicate threads to convey a strong message that works. Also read: Akshay Kumar Calls Dowry ‘Extortion’ Ahead of Raksha Bandhan’s Release
Set in the back alleys of Chandni Chownk in Old Delhi, the film introduces us to Lala Kedarnath (Akshay), who owns a pushtaini golgappa shop that has been there for three generations now. Pregnant women queue up in front of the store, believing that eating panipuri from Lala’s store will help them give birth to a baby boy. Meanwhile, on her deathbed, Lala had promised his mother that he would not settle down with a girl until he married off his four sisters to suitable boys. And that’s the big job for the sisters, as described by matchmaker Shanu (Seema Pahwa), are a mixed variety. While the eldest of the four, Gayatri (Sadia Khateeb) is the ideal and sensible one, Durga (Deepika Khanna) is chubby and on the heavier side, Laxmi (Smrithi Srikanth) has dark skin that doesn’t meet society’s beauty standards, and the youngest, Saraswati (Sahejmeen Kaur) is tomboy-esque, who grew up watching movies like Ghatak, Ghayal and Ziddi, all starring Sunny Deol. Amid all this chaos, Lala’s childhood sweetheart Sapna (Bhumi Pednekar) waits desperately to marry him, but only after his sisters are taken care of. How Akshay keeps his promise and what hardships he faces along the way is at the heart of what we see in Raksha Bandhan.
What I liked most about the film is the wonderful balance it brings in terms of emotions. It’s packed with humor in the first half and there are some really funny and heartwarming scenes, including the sisters constantly nudging, teasing their only brother, Sapna’s desperate attempts to lure Lala, and so on. Cut-to-post interval, and the emotional arc of characters, as well as the storyline leave you immersed, and you’ll get tears in your eyes more often than you’d expect.
The story of Himanshu Sharma and Kanika Dhillon never tries to overshadow an important subject like dowry in the guise of comedy. There are lighter moments that somewhat address the issue, but there are also some extremely harsh dialogue and scenes that are powerful and manage to send a strong message. The groom’s family demanding a dowry or the bride’s family giving it as a present is a problematic arrangement that no one really talks about. While many think it is something more common in the rural sectors and the cities have made progress in this area, it is simply not the case. In fact, the richer the family, there is more exchange (willed or forced) of these gifts. Raksha Bandhan evokes this practice in a very effective and emotional way. For once it’s good that Bollywood hasn’t downplayed an issue to make a point.
Consistency in the story is one of the film’s greatest assets. The storyline rarely loses focus and is well paced. We are only told so much backstory about these siblings it took to make a connection. Director Aanand L Rai does not go overboard and takes us back and forth with flashbacks. The film is very cleverly edited at 110 minutes and leaves no room at all to seem repetitive or boring.
However, the stereotypes attached to some characters will not please everyone. The way some scenes normalize body shaming by calling Durga “double decker”, and skin shame Laxmi calling her “amavas ki raat” which should be “marinated in uptan” is not really necessary. In one of the scenes, Shanu whose marriage agency is called Saubhayashali: Beti aapki, chinta hamari, Saraswati ‘Chota Shakeel’ and says ‘isko Sunny Deol se Sunny Leone banana hai’. (Ow, that’s a little below the belt). But the audacity with which these sisters respond, “Big is beautiful” or “Black is back,” shows how girls are ready to hit back at the constantly judging society.
Akshay is great as a loving brother. He’s hilarious in the comedic scenes and incredibly vulnerable in the emotional ones. This may be after a long, long time that I’ve seen Akshay cry so many times on screen for a movie. His charisma, conviction, pain, passion and energy reflect everywhere. Bhumi as the helpless lover is convincing and has a pleasant on-screen presence, although this time her chemistry with Akshay wasn’t as good as their previous outings.
The way Raksha Bandhan approaches the brother sister bond is quite unusual. We never see these sisters really open to the only brother they have, but they have so much that they expect from him. Knowing that his sisters are the only reason he can’t get married soon, Akshay never shows any sense of annoyance or feeling burdened. While all four girls get plenty of screen time (maybe not that many lines) to shine and perform, it’s the camaraderie between Sadia and Akshay that stands out. Their scenes together are endearing, especially the one when she gets married and the song being played.
Raksha Bandhan is a family entertainer who takes the form of social commentary in some places, but does not detract from the main essence of celebrating the sibling bond and its beauty. Check it out with your parents and certainly your partner in crime, your brothers and sisters.
Form: Akshay Kumar, Bhumi Pednekar, Sadia Khateeb, Deepika Khanna, Smrithi Srikanth, Sahejmeen Kaur
Director: Aanand L Rai