Written by Himanshu Sharma and Kanika Dhillon and directed by Aanand L. Rai, this Akshay Kumar-starrer is all kinds of problematic. Even at a crisp running time of 108 minutes, loaded with seven tuneless songs by Himesh Reshammiya, Raksha Bandhan is a regressive film that compresses the potentially most interesting plot point into a song montage (more on that later) and expands the melodrama.
This seems to be the week for golgappe. It’s a life philosophy for Aamir Khan’s Laal Singh Chaddha and a business gimmick for Akshay Kumar’s Lala Kedarnath. In a snack stall in Chandni Chowk, Delhi, run by generations before him, Kedarnath continues to feed golgappas to pregnant women, perpetuating a long running urban myth that the tangy snack from his stall will ensure she has a boy child.
The good-humoured Kedarnath is burdened by a commitment made to his dying mother when he promised he would marry off his four younger sisters before his own marriage. Kedarnath is struggling to accrue funds and is usually beaten by the dowry demands. This has meant that after years of waiting, his childhood love Sapna (Bhumi Pednekar) and her unbearably anxious father are finally losing patience.
The message of this movie is finally about the illegal practice of dowry and its consequences on girls and their families. There are several issues with this narrative right from the snack that will deliver a boy, Kedarnath’s obvious bias towards his fairest, loveliest sister Gayatri (Sadia Khateeb), the taunts and insults at the other three—Durga (Deepika Khanna) is overweight (called a ‘double decker’), the dusky Lakshmi (Smrithi Srikanth) is referred to as ‘amavas ki raat’ (no moon night) and the youngest Saraswati (Sahejmeen Kaur) is a tomboy who they want to transform “from Sunny Deol to Sunny Leone”. Plus none of the women have any purpose. This includes the character of Sapna who either threatens Kedarnath that she will marry another or becomes the self-sacrificing woman who will wait endlessly for her man. Pednekar mostly weeps through the film. Indeed, there are a lot of tears, most of them unearned.
Kedarnath has an epiphany when his desperate attempt to get his sisters married, eventually with the help of a matchmaker named Shanu (Seema Pahwa), results in a tragedy. He makes a 180 switch. This is where the film could have earned points for attempting something beyond the pedestrian, but that section is conveyed as a song montage.
The characters in Rai’s film shout a lot, often publicly, in the middle of the narrow, crowded bylanes of Chandni Chowk. Timed with a festival that celebrates the sibling bond, Raksha Bandhan harks back to bygone Hindi movies with vows made on deathbed, dowry demands, sacrifices and rivers of tears.
Kumar is expected to do the heavy lifting, which he attempts in spite of a screenplay that’s begging to be plugged. The greatest gripe here is not just that this is a regressive drama that barely gives three of the sisters substantial screen time, but that it does not give agency, guts or glory to any of the women characters, not unless a man is championing their cause.