A still from Raksha Bandhan trailer. (courtesy: Zee TV)
Cast: Akshay Kumar, Bhumi Pednekar, Sadia Khateeb, Sahejmeen Kaur, Smrithi Srikanth and Deepika Khanna
Director: Aanand L Rai
Rating: 1 star (out of 5)
Let us get this out of the way without mincing words: Aanand L. Rai's Raksha Bandhan has no business to exist in this day and age. It is a shockingly regressive family drama that would have us believe that girls are worth nothing if they are not married and domesticated. Headlined by Akshay Kumar (Bollywood's poster boy of all things sanskari) in the guise of an Old Delhi chaat vendor who peddles golgappas to expectant women who desire a male child, Raksha Bandhan is aimed at warming the cockles of our hearts. It is, after all, the story of a 'heroic' man committed heart, soul and kidney to the well-being of a quartet of sisters, poor little clueless kids who cannot do without big bro's protective hand.
Happiness in this hero's Chandni Chowk household rides on the institution of marriage. Kedar Nath (Akshay Kumar) is forsworn to finding suitable boys for his sisters and doing whatever it takes to pool together the money needed for the weddings.
The poor man's plight is meant to leave the audience in tears. It probably will. One lot will certainly be moved by the predicament of a man 'saddled' with sisters for whom he must find life partners before he can marry his longtime girlfriend Sapna (Bhumi Pednekar).
It is hard to believe that anybody would make a film such as this in 2022. Both its feet are firmly planted in an era long gone. The girls of Raksha Bandhan, like the film itself, are caught in a time warp. Why would young women growing up in a part of India's NCR in this age of free-flowing information and abundance of opportunities make such a big deal about marriage?
Indeed, those that are bound to be appalled by the film's archaic assumptions will be tearing their hair out in despair. Raksha Bandhan peddles shockingly obsolete notions about women and their body type, skin colour and general demeanour.
Kedar, the ideal brother, 'manfully' carries the burden of his younger female siblings who, in turn, look up to the man for salvation. This guy's 'magic' golgappas have the power to deliver 'miracles', but his attempts to find matches for his sisters do not yield instant results.
Kedar's girlfriend is at her wit's end, having waited forever to wed him. Her father runs out of patience. He gives Kedar an ultimatum. He has eight months to go before he retires. He will wait no longer, the old man thunders. He intends to marry his daughter off before his superannuation.
That, in a nutshell, is the plot of Raksha Bandhan, an abjectly anachronistic tale that thinks nothing of emphasizing that a husband is all that a girl needs in order to complete her life. Which century do we live in?
Raksha Bandhan, written by Himanshu Sharma (Tanu Weds Manu, Raanjhana, Zero) and Kanika Dhillon (Manmarziyaan), is only 110 minutes long, which is about the only thing about the film that could be deemed passable. Yet, constantly frothing at the mouth as it spouts inanities, the film quickly careens out of control.
We know where Raksha Bandhan is headed, but the convoluted route that it takes to get there makes the journey awfully wearisome. It is an insufferably turgid tearjerker that delivers an anti-dowry statement but not before it has repeatedly underlined the regressive notion that women are the mercy of the men in their lives - fathers, brothers and husbands. It is loud, shrill and excruciatingly bombastic. Not for once does it pause to ponder over how insensitive all the noise it makes sounds.
It isn't only about the treatment that the film metes out to women. Men aren't spared either. Kedar, looking for husbands for his two middle sisters, is provided a lead by wedding planner Shanu (Seema Pahwa) - two well-off twins who stammer.
The two prospective bridegrooms become instant butts of ridicule. Kedar takes swipes at them without a care in the world. Nobody has obviously ever told him that there is nothing worse than poking fun at physical impairments. All this is supposed to be not only part of what Raksha Bandhan believes is a dash of humour, but also a measure of the onerous task that the dutiful frere has on his hands. Kedar's sisters, on their part, are a cantankerous lot with the exception of one, Gayatri (Sadia Khateeb). She is conventionally pretty, the demure one, cut out for marriage, and, therefore, the least of Kedar's worries.
The other three pose a far bigger challenge because they are different. Durga (Deepika Khanna) is overweight. Lakshmi (Smrithi Srikanth) is dark-complexioned. Neither of the two has an issue with the way they are, but big brother will not let them forget. One is repeatedly told to diet; the other is advised not to go out in the sun. Kedar's youngest sister (Sahejman Kaur), weaned on Sunny Deol action films, is a tomboy. She is still a student. The subject of her marriage is never broached. The audience isn't told whether Kedar will have to wait to be hitched until his sister grows up and is ready to marry.
Do not worry about such niceties of either psychology or logic because neither is sought to be brought into play. While a chunk of Raksha Bandhan hinges around Kedar and Sapna's now-on, now-off relationship, another key strand of the story rests on what the sisters have in store. The film moves from one to other, whipping up a mawkish muddle that never really sorts itself out.
Logically, Raksha Bandhan should have been about five weddings but cramming so many into less than two hours would have taken some doing. Eventually it is only about two weddings. The others are put on the backburner as the focus of the film shifts to the climax, which is as slapdash as anything else that the plot cobbles together. The performances, too, are unsurprisingly unsubtle. The humour is coarse and the emotions border on the strident. So, the actors have to go all out to complement the high-pitched, preachy nature of the storytelling.
One would have loved to discuss at length the work of cinematographer K.U. Mohanan, who vividly captures Chandni Chowk in all its chaos and clamour. It all seems wasted on a film that lets other things botch up the frames that the camera composes.
Akshay Kumar fans might not have anything to complain about. The star is in virtually every frame, raving and ranting. He has enormous workload. He is a shopkeeper, a dispenser of miracle water-balls, an ever-sacrificing brother and a lover who must subjugate his own interest to that of his sisters and, while he is at it, deliver of strident sermons.
In a tone-deaf film, the lead actor is at liberty to slip in and out of his different avatars without having to worry about finer behavioural detailing.
Raksha Bandhan is so, so yesterday in both substance and spirit that it could be passed off as a soggy 1950s film that has wended its way through the decades to land in our midst for no rhyme or reason.
Akshay Kumar, Bhumi Pednekar, Sadia Khateeb, Sahejmeen Kaur, Smrithi Srikanth and Deepika Khanna
Aanand L Rai