Ten years after Vicky Donor, it's clear that Ayushmann Khurrana is not to be seduced by Bollywood. He’s been a bona fide star for years now, yet doesn’t do what one might think of as star projects. He seems happy acting in mid-sized films that sometimes pair him with another male star but more often with a female co-star playing someone smarter than him. These films invariably have him overcoming some sort of prejudice, which could be anything from casteism to hair loss. It’s a cinema of audience improvement through the example of self-improvement.
The thing is, I wish he would get seduced, sometimes. He’s very watchable in pretty much everything, but there’s an edge to agenda-less Khurrana, the one who schemes his way through Andhadhun and Gulabo Sitabo. I would love to see what Imtiaz Ali, who loves to write misunderstood Indian males, could do with Khurrana, whose filmography is a relentless skewering of Indian manhood. Or to see him in a Zoya Akhtar travel film as some rich dude who doesn’t feel bad about all those wasted tomatoes.
While I live in hope of lesson-free Khurrana, it’s likely the next few years will bring more films like Anubhuti Kashyap’s Doctor G. Uday (Khurrana) wants to become an orthopedic doctor, but hasn’t scored well enough in his entrance exams. With time running out, he ‘books’ a seat in a Bhopal medical college in the gynecology department, figuring he’ll leave after a year when he scores enough to get the discipline of his choice. Uday has no interest in gynecology, even trying to swap his seat with a higher-ranking female student who secured orthopedics. To him, it’s a female discipline, a view that’s reinforced when he turns out to be the only male student in the entire department.
With Khurrana in the lead, there’s only one way this film can go. Uday will slowly learn to listen to women and become serious about gynecology. And he will end up a sensitized human being, discarding the ‘male touch’ and discovering new-found empathy for his patients, his colleagues, and his doting but lonely mother (Sheeba Chaddha). He’s helped in this by a group of supportive seniors—including Fatima (Rakul Preet Singh), whom he promptly falls for despite her being engaged—and the severe, capable head of department, Dr Nandini Srivastav (Shefali Shah).
Doctor G is a comedy for the most part, but there’s no real wit in the writing, only tired laughs wrung out of Uday’s mum joining Tinder or the couple who can’t conceive because the man is, umm, misdirected. Uday’s best friend (Abhay Chintamani Mishr) is called ‘Chaddi’ (underwear). Two excellent comic actors, Shraddha Jain and Puja Sarup, get little to work with.
It’s only in the latter half that a subplot starts playing out, and vastly improves the dramatic stakes of the film. Uday’s mentor has gotten a schoolgirl pregnant, and has dumped the responsibility of her abortion on him. This, of course, is career-threatening stuff, and even Improved Uday has some tough decisions to make. The developing friendship between Uday and the girl, who also wants to be a doctor, is unforced and sweet—and Kashyap presents the crisis at the end in a stark, efficient manner. It’s the only section of the film when I was fully engaged. Audiences expect moral instruction in a Khurrana film like they expect waving flags in a Akshay Kumar film. Which doesn’t mean they wouldn't like to forget they’re being instructed for a while.