A suitable girl has been found for the already married Jayesh, one who might give him the son his autocratic, female foetus-aborting father so desires (this film is set in the 21st century). Jayesh’s sister tries to dissuade the prospective bride, lying that her brother beats women. The girl looks alarmed for a second, then says calmly, “I must have done something to deserve it.”
While the world makes rightly harrowing films about abortion, Hindi cinema gives you a female foeticide comedy, where the best joke is about wife-beating. This is pretty subversive, especially when you consider it’ll be watched as a ‘family film’ sandwiched between the violent fantasies of KGF 2 and Prithviraj. Jayeshbhai Jordaar, written and directed by Divyang Thakkar, runs hot and cold: it’s funny but not often enough, straining for effect when it should play the emotion of a scene. But it also turns dark fact into manic humour, and conservative attitudes into farce.
After six miscarriages, Jayesh (Ranveer Singh) and Mudra (Shalini Pandey) are expecting again. The previous ones have all been girls, detected through pre-natal screening and aborted on the insistence of Jayesh's father (Boman Irani), the village sarpanch, who cares about nothing but the family name being carried forward. Jayesh already has a daughter—“pehli galti maaf” (pardon the first mistake) is the casually chilling reason why she was allowed to live—and would happily welcome another. He won’t stand up to his father, so he plots an escape instead: Mudra will pretend to take him hostage and they’ll drive to a village in Haryana where the sex ratio is so skewed the remaining men have become vocal feminists.
The plan comes undone, of course. And in the series of escapes and captures that follows, the film comes undone too. There’s one excellent gag: when the sarpanch demands a photograph of Mudra so he can alert the authorities, they take out the wedding album, only to find she’s wearing a ghoonghat in all the pictures. But the other scenarios are laboured and silly: a chase halted because of a black cat; a mass drugging; a deus ex machina Bengali; Jayesh threatening to castrate himself.
YRF, which turned out some of smartest scripts of the 2010s, might need a screenwriting intervention (Jayeshbhai was preceded by Mardaani 2 and Bunty Aur Babli 2). Having “chehra chhupa ke rakhna” (keep your face hidden) play over the image of women in ghoongats is referencing without bite—less ‘think of the implications’, more ‘we made Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge’. A recurring bit is that Jayesh and Mudra have never kissed, and are looking for the right moment to do so. Thakkar miscalculates by having Jayesh blather on about the healing power of a kiss in a scene that was, until he takes it over, about the collective pain of abused women. The crowd I saw it with kept giggling every time Singh said pappi, and who could blame them? It finally happens at a moment when kissing ought to be the last thing on either person’s mind.
For someone who's mostly played hypermasculine jocks—warriors, ruffians, cops, athletes—Ranveer Singh has always suggested softer shades in real life. It’s no surprise, then, to see him slip with ease into the halting, dweeby and steadfast figure of Jayesh (he looks somehow de-muscled). Another good idea is pairing him with a child—and Jia Vaidya is a riot as the loud, confident Siddhi, essentially playing the Ranveer role. Irani adds another author-backed antagonist to his collection, but seems to be held back from true nastiness. Despicable as the sarpanch is, the frequent comic touches make him less formidable.
The news that the US Supreme Court might be striking down Roe v. Wade has challenged people in other countries to examine their own record on abortion. Arriving a fortnight after that, and days after the Delhi High Court delivered a split verdict on the marital rape exception, a film that looks at forced abortion and patriarchal cruelty could not be timelier. Jayeshbhai Jordaar is on the right side of history—rather painstakingly so. There’s only so many times a film can ask a viewer to praise its moral choices. It’s become important for films to project goodness; audiences only care that a film be good.