As I stood in line to get myself some coffee during the intermission of 'Dum Laga Ke Haisha' at a south Delhi multiplex, I overheard a conversation between the people manning the snacks counter.
"Maine toh nahi karni uske saath marriage," declared a short, slender woman in uniform. "Toh kya bhaag ke karegi shaadi?" asked a male colleague, laughing at the thought. Three of their friends joined in this hilarity before one of them realised an eavesdropping film critic was waiting for someone to take his order.
The parallels between this and what I'd just watched on screen were mind-boggling. How would these people react to 'Dum Laga Ke Haisha', a charming story of an arranged marriage between an oddly-matched couple? Did they realise that the story of their lives - and, indeed, many lives in India - were playing out with painstaking detail on a screen at their very workplace?
For that is what writer-director Sharat Katariya has done in his sophomore film (his debut was 2010's 10 ml Love, which sank without a trace) - taken a situation that exists in every city, town, and village in this country and turned it into a delightful dramedy. Dum Laga Ke Haisha's marketing tagline, 'Love comes in all sizes', suggests a feel-good rom-com that could easily veer into 'fat jokes' territory on account of debutant Bhumi Pednekar's rotund figure.
'Love comes in all sizes'
But what Katariya has achieved here is far more significant. This is a film that observes patriarchy, feminism, and familial relationships with much more nuance than many others can claim to do, without losing any of its breeziness and charm. Set in the '90s in the temple town of Haridwar, Dum Laga... tells the story of Prem Prakash Tiwari (Ayushmann Khurrana), a good-for-nothing youth who runs the family business - an audio-video recording store - and is devoted to Kumar Sanu. Having never studied beyond the 10th standard due to his ineptitude at English, Prem is constantly berated by his overbearing family, played by grizzled patriarch Sanjay Mishra, loving-but-world-weary mother Alka Amin; and wily, nasty aunt Sheeba Chaddha.
As is commonplace in this milieu, this family wants their ne'er-do-well Prem to get "settled." In walks Sandhya (Pednekar), a plump-but-pleasant-looking young woman who is well-educated and dreams of becoming a teacher. Prem protests, but there is no stopping it - within the blink of an eye, he's married.
Dum Laga... nails the psyche of Prem, who, like many young Indian men, is both under-qualified and yet feels entitled to a bride who is slim and beautiful. Sandhya, who is more intelligent and pragmatic, is also the victim of a certain kind of social brainwashing - the kind that tells her that her worth is defined by her marital status, a point routinely enforced by her hilariously melodramatic mother (played by Seema Pahwa).
Adding to the movie's charm is the exquisite detailing and the verisimilitude to its setting, thanks to production designer Meenal Desai. That joy of listening to the crisp sound of CD players for the first time, the unfaltering conviction that Limca is the best cure for gastric problems, the uncertainty of answering calls on a landline minus caller ID - these are vivid moments of nostalgia brought to life by Katariya's wonderful screenplay. Meanwhile, Anu Malik's music and Varun Grover's lyrics evoke the period perfectly, adding new context to that cheesy line 'Not temporary, permanent dhundhenge' (from the title track of 1994's Main Khiladi Tu Anari, also composed by Malik).
And then there are the performances. Top marks to casting director Shanoo Sharma, whose impeccable choices go a long way in making this film the gem it is. Mishra and Pahwa, both alumni of last year's excellent Ankhon Dekhi, play their roles with unfettered confidence, while Chaddha steals nearly every scene she appears in. Khurrana turns in an admirably refined and believable performance, showing us why he cannot be written off even after last month's disastrous Hawaizaada.
But if there's anyone this film belongs to - apart from Katariya - it's Pednekar, who may just have pulled off one of the greatest debuts in recent memory. Pulling off a character like Sandhya, who is both coy as well as coquettish, and pragmatic as well as naïve is no easy task. Pednekar, who reportedly gave over a 100 auditions for this role, makes it look easy. This isn't mere acting; it's an embodiment of a character, aided by perfect casting and marvelously restrained direction.
This is as good as commercial Hindi cinema can get and if and when it endeavours to get even better, I'd put my money on Katariya to be the man for the job.
(An earlier version of this article erroneously called Ayushmann Khurrana's character Prem 'Kumar' Tiwari instead of Prem 'Prakash' Tiwari. This error is regretted and has been fixed.)