Several times over the course of The Great Indian Family, Ved (Vicky Kaushal) says he prefers learning practically to studying theory. This is ironic, because Vijay Krishna Acharya’s film is much better in theory than in practice. It’s built around a fertile comic provocation—Hindu priest’s son learns he’s Muslim by birth. But what it does with this is tentative and disappointing.
Ved has been a devotional singer since he was a child. He performs as Bhajan Kumar, drawing large crowds in his hometown of Balrampur and offering extra value to those engaging his father, Siyaram (Kumud Mishra), as their priest. One day, Ved reads aloud to his sister, uncle and aunts a letter addressed to his father, who’s out of town on pilgrimage. It says that the boy who came into the family in 1992—Ved—is Muslim. This throws him into crisis, which deepens when the news leaks in the neighbourhood.
The hysteria that builds after this revelation is a believable, if benign, version of what might happen in a small Uttar Pradesh town if news like this broke. Siyaram’s clients immediately break off ties. Morphed images of Ved with skullcap and darkened eyes are spread on social media. Protest marches are organized. Passersby say things like “You don’t look like one…” Even Ved’s household takes a vote on whether he should continue performing bhajans. Which makes this the second film in a fortnight to talk about voting wisely—with a more pointed agenda than Jawan’s vague call to conscience.
And yet, the film falters in ways that are revealing. Getting outed as Muslim is presented as a mortal blow for Ved. It never seems to occur to Acharya to take this line of inquiry a little further—to ask what it might be like to be Muslim in India in 2023. Not once does Ved reflect on his own actions. In a scene played for laughs, he and his friends rough up and threaten a blameless Muslim man; Ved says “surgical strike” before entering the neighbourhood, a joke in very poor taste. We later learn this isn’t the first time he’s publicly humiliated Muslim men, yet it doesn’t seem to trouble his conscience. In another badly judged scene, Ved cosplays as Muslim—cap, kajal, green clothes—as the ultimate threat to his family.
Muslim lives are regarded with an anthropological curiosity by Ved, a comic approach that was more successful in the similarly themed Dharam Sankat Mein (2015). Acharya’s written the screenplay and dialogue, as he’s done for all his films, but the levels required in loud action films—a genre he’s straying from for the first time—are considerably less than what’s expected from a mid-budget comedy-drama (there should be a law against characters who say “I know I'm loud but I'm Punjabi and it's from the heart”, as Manushi Chhillar does here). It’s Acharya's first film since Thugs of Hindostan (2018), and while he’s obviously intent on escaping movie jail, he appears to miss the razzle-dazzle, which might explain the intermittent (and hilariously misplaced) slo-mo walks.
The Great Indian Family can’t handle the heat in its own kitchen. It sanitizes the all-pervasive atmosphere of casual violence and mistrust towards Muslims in the country and deploys it as a temporary predicament for its Hindu protagonist. A violent incident in the 1992 riots is transformed into a warped advertisement for national integration. Ved’s uncle (Manoj Pahwa) calls him a ‘Naxal’ during an argument—nothing to do with Ved’s beliefs, just another buzzword to toss out, like ‘surgical strike’ or ‘ghar wapsi’. There’s the loaded image of a confused young Hindu man almost converting to Islam, not out of belief but as an act of defiance, and being led away by the hand at the last moment by his virtuous pandit father. It’s a measure of the film’s lack of control over its own material that this scene could turn up in a hateful propaganda film with the smallest of tweaks.