hamari adhuri kahani

Say what you will about the maverick that is Mahesh Bhatt, but what you can’t deny is that the man has guts, whether it is placing female characters at the center of his narratives (“Arth,” “Zak hm”) when doing so wasn’t as en vogue as is today, or pushing the envelope of on-screen erotica (“Jism,” “Raaz”) to a sometimes disturbing, yet daring, extent.

Writing and producing Mohit Suri’s latest, “Humari Adhuri Kahaani,” proves Bhatt’s audacity yet again—but this time, it’s by giving us a film so archaic that I’m wondering whether the screenplay was actually penned 50 years ago and he decided, inexplicably, to time its release to coincide with one of India’s most outspoken contemporary women’s movements.

Picture this scene: a woman sprinting, in near-hysterical, tear-streaked panic across a Dubai desert to her hotel room so that she can retrieve the mangalsutra she forgot to wear that evening—the mangalsutra given to her by an uber-domineering husband who abandoned her five years earlier.

Not a great call, Bhatt.

But aside from setting most of our feminist radars ablaze, there’s a whole lot more wrong with “Hamari Adhuri Kahani” too. Let’s start at the beginning of this “incomplete,” but totally over-the-top story.

Vasudha (Vidya Balan) is a hotel florist and single mom after her husband Hari (Rajkumar Rao), as mentioned, went MIA five years ago and is now a suspected terrorist. When her flower arrangements catch the eye of tycoon hotelier—we are reminded more than once that he owns 108 luxury establishments—Aarav (Emraan Hashmi), his curiosity is piqued and he wastes no time striking up a conversation with Vasudha.

Upon her confession to him that it pains her to cut flowers for the enjoyment of others, he is instantly smitten by her botanical sensitivity, and hires her at his Dubai hotel, claiming that he is drawn to her because she reminds him of his mother (because that’s not creepy in the slightest).

Once in Dubai, they fall in love at a staggeringly rapid pace, Vasudha eventually putting her married guilt aside so that Aarav, as she puts it, can “teach her how to live and love” again. It’s a solid enough plan until she flies back to Mumbai and finds that her once missing husband Hari has somehow made it home, with a few surprises of his own.

The first half of “Hamari Adhuri Kahaani” plays out like a Hallmark card dipped in syrup, the budding romance between Vasudha and Aarav all poetic declarations and flowery (literally) backdrops. Dialogues are so filmy they make a Sooraj Barjatya movie look like the paradigm of inspired scriptwriting. Consider lines like “if the light hadn’t been in you, it wouldn’t have reflected outwards,” or “who is this wandering soul who feels like a kindred spirit?” Mind you, whichever character is uttering this histrionic garbage is doing so with a totally straight face.

hamari adhuri kahani

The second half doesn’t fare much better, with the return of Hari triggering a whole lot of moral dilemma on Vasudha’s part, and Aarav, at one point, ending up in a jungle. Throw in a couple of melancholy ballads amidst a snow-sprinkled set-piece in Shimla, a tragic twist, and an errant game of spin the bottle, and there you have it: a narrative so contrived that there’s no taking it seriously, even with three actors who try their darnedest to salvage the mess.

Balan does her utmost to breathe some life into her role, but Bhatt’s comically awful writing doesn’t give her much to work with. Vasudha is the worst kind of lead character, one whom you feel neither supportive of nor antagonistic towards. There isn’t even a gray area to speak of, which would have at least lent her some personality. Instead, she is an utter coward—and who can get invested in a protagonist who makes us either recoil in exasperation or sigh in boredom?

Vasudha comes from a home where uttering the word “love” in front of her father is forbidden; a marriage that required her to tattoo her husband’s name on her forearm; a mindset so embedded in tradition that, when encouraged by her own mother to take off her now-meaningless mangalsutra, she says she doesn’t have the strength to do so. The result is a woman who has less spine than an amoeba, amounting to little apart from a sobbing bundle of nerves—indeed, from the very first frame through to the last, her eyes are glazed over with glycerin. Even when she gives an impassioned, (and teary, of course) speech at the end upon realizing she has both acted and been treated like a wet dishrag, it’s too little, too late to be either convincing or sympathetic.

Hashmi’s forced intensity is, as always, simply awkward and his attempts to woo Vasudha are disconcerting; even something minor, like adjusting his rearview mirror all the better to ogle her with, is cringe-inducing. Worse, the chemistry between the two sputters before it’s even really ignited, leaving us feeling blasé at best about their relationship.

Rao is the only one of the three who challenges your judgment of his character; as the oppressive husband who has his own history of being mistreated, your hatred of him may be tinged with a hint of pity.

I’d say “Hamari Adhuri Kahaani” was a yawn-fest, but that would be dishonest—having spent half the film giggling at the sheer inanity of it, I had a pretty good time in spite of it all, though obviously not in the sense quite aspired to by director Suri, who seemed hell bent on making us cry if it’s the last thing he ever does.

Regardless of the unintended laughs, there is no way I can recommend “Hamari Adhuri Kahaani” with a clear conscience. Incomplete though it may be, I had certainly had more than enough of this story by the time the end credits rolled.