The Great Indian Family Review
Five years after the Thugs of Hindostan debacle, the team of producer Aditya Chopra and writer-director Vijay Krishna Acharya is back with a raucous dramedy that, notwithstanding a clutch of trivial contrivances, makes amends of sorts. It delivers a welcome “unity in diversity” message in an entertaining, unpretentious way.
Its advocacy of pluralism and inclusivity, no matter how facile the methods that The Great Indian Family employs are, makes perfect sense, especially in the current socio-political climate in which othering is one of our favorite collective pastimes.
The Great Indian Family, which celebrates the beauty of a dynamic nation’s time-tested syncretism, traverses down a somewhat laborious path in reaching the conclusion that a mahaul (environment) and a mohalla (neighborhood) that lack variety and try to impose a single color and credo on everybody should be anathema to all right-thinking people.
For all its missteps, which are more in the nature of the tics that popular Hindi cinema cannot usually do without, the film deserves to be commended for talking up the need for harmony at a time when segments of Bollywood are falling over each other to profit from narratives that are dipped in venom and vitriol.
The Great Indian Family is about a successful bhajan singer whose life is turned upside down when a letter that arrives like a bolt from the blue claims that his religious identity is different from that of his father, a Hindu priest revered by one and all in the small town of Balrampur.
Ved Vyas Tripathi, alias Billu, is “Bhajan Kumar” (Vicky Kaushal), the undisputed king of the devotional songs circuit. He has a fan following to die for. His father is the go-to man for every major religious ceremony in town, one of which presents Billu, as a schoolboy, to show the world his singing skills.
Billu believes that life is like is a game of snakes and ladders and his family members are the poisonous ones snapping at his heels. His fear comes true when it turns out that he isn’t a Hindu although he was raised as one.
The crisis that the discovery of his origins sparks – his father Siyaram Tripathi (Kumud Mishra) is away on his annual pilgrimage when a letter from a dead man divulges the truth of his birth – drives a wedge between Billu and the rest of the family. He is all but thrown out of the flock and a vicious social media campaign threatens to end his career.
A big wedding is up ahead and Billu’s uncle, Balak Ram Tripathi (Manoj Pahwa), who is in charge of the family in the absence of his elder brother, decides to keep the bhajan singer out of the fold for fear of losing the lucrative contract.
Although Billu has no clue why everybody thinks he is no longer the person he was, his religion gives those who want to see his family come to grief a stick to beat him with. He resolves to take the blows on the chin until it becomes absolutely clear that he has no option but to stand up and be counted.
The tone of the 112-minute film’s opening moments belies the serious turn that it takes just ahead of the halfway mark. Billu, in his own voice, narrates his back story and introduces the audience to his family – his father, his uncle, his bua (Alka Amin), his chachi (Sadiya Siddiqui) and his twin sister Gunja (Srishti Dixit).
He also throws in a quick reference to a rival Balrampur priest (Yashpal Sharma) and his son (Aasif Khan), who are bent upon countering the goodwill that Billu’s sagacious father enjoys in the community. The stage is thus set for a tussle between the two families for the religious rituals that are up for grabs – a battle in which the Tripathis always have their noses ahead.
In an early scene, The Great Indian Family appears to be heading in the wrong direction. Billu and two pals enter a Muslim-dominated locality to stop a boy called Abdul from a romantic rendezvous. The trio calls themselves the “anti-Majnu squad”. The terms that they use before they go about scaring off Abdul – no man’s land, surgical strike, et all – suggest a problematic mindset.
But what exactly the screenwriter is driving at becomes clear when in the very next sequence, Billu and his friends receive instant comeuppance. A feisty young girl from Jalandhar, Jasmine (Manushi Chhillar), who, it is soon revealed, is also a crooner and dancer, puts them in their place. She schools them on respecting those that are different from them.
Sufficiently chastised by the belligerent Jasmine, Billu and his friends visit Abdul’s home to apologize to him. There they learn that Abdul’s brother Pintu is the actor who plays Kumbhakarna in Balrampur’s Ramlila. Their mother refuses to let Billu leave without making tea for the boys. The encounter helps the protagonist see the other side of the picture.
That is the thrust of what The Great Indian Family is trying to tell an audience that is increasingly told to believe the exact opposite. In the garish, high-pitched, seemingly ‘uncool’ world that Billu and his devout Hindu family inhabit, cinematographer Ayananka Bose revels in heightening the loud colors that dominate the elaborate and busy spaces.
The over-wrought visuals sit well with the discourse that runs through The Great Indian Family, which sees Vicky Kaushal in fine fettle. The support that his energetic performance receives from the rest of the cast – Kumud Mishra and Manoj Pahwa in particular – stands out.
The script does not, however, do justice to the hero’s romantic interest – the outspoken and assertive Jasmine, played by Manushi Chhillar. The character, especially because of the ideas that she espouses, deserved more play.
The Great Indian Family could have been a film of far greater acuity, but the broadsides that it aims against narrow-mindedness through the story of a family as a microcosm of a society and a nation do find their mark.
Vicky Kaushal, Manushi Chhillar, Kumud Mishra, Bhuvan Arora, Manoj Pahwa
Vijay Krishna Acharya