Director: Raaj Shaandilyaa
Ayushmann Khurrana has played a groom-to-be who discovers he’s suffering from erectile dysfunction, a young man whose middle-aged parents surprise him with the news that they’re having a baby, a recently married fellow who shuns his overweight wife, and a scheming romantic who watches the girl he loves become attracted to the obnoxious proxy he recruited to break her heart. With every one of these characters he’s challenged notions of masculinity and upended the classic image of the ideal Hindi film hero. Of course it was only a matter of time before he impersonated a woman.
In Dream Girl, co-written and directed by Raaj Shaandilyaa, he plays Karam, an unemployed young man in Gokul, Mathura, who takes a job at a call centre where women engage in flirtatious phone banter with lonely, desperate callers. It’s not a big stretch for Karam, whose gift for faking the perfect female voice has served him well since he was a boy, playing Sita in the local Ram Leela every year.
Karam ‘becomes’ Pooja once he’s on the phone, and he’s clearly very good at his job. Before long a string of admirers have lost their hearts to Pooja, including a shayiri spouting constable (Vijay Raaz), an obsessed Haryanvi teenager (Raj Bhansali), a virgin bumpkin (Abhishek Banerjee), and a woman whose bad experiences with men have turned her off the gender (Nidhi Bisht). It’s a premise that lends itself to much comedy, but the jokes in Dream Girl are of the broad kind. No problem with that, except that they fast begin to feel overlong, repetitive, and tiring. Also the effort to make the film ‘family friendly’ is very evident, and it robs the film of the adult, risqué humour that a theme like raunchy phone sex organically lends itself to.
The second hour, however, is decidedly more entertaining, not least because it entrusts some of the heavy lifting to Annu Kapoor, cast in the role of Karam’s father, who, in a hilarious twist, starts speaking in fluent Urdu. The senior actor shines, bringing flair to his scenes, although all the Muslim stereotypes that the film insists on perpetuating are troubling.
The film has moments of terrific, inspired comedy; there are scenes that fly. But compared to some of Ayushmann’s recent work – Bareilly Ki Barfi, Shubh Mangal Saavdhaan or Badhaai Ho – this feels like a laboured effort. Director Raaj Shaandilyaa has nothing of any consequence to say about what makes some men (and women) seek refuge in phone friendships and sex. Twice in the film Karam mentions the loneliness of his callers, but the film doesn’t explore that thought even briefly.
The bigger irony, I suppose, is that a film whose subliminal message is about being comfortable embracing one’s feminine side, has little use for its female characters. Karam’s romantic interest, played by Nushrat Bharucha, has precious little to do. The other women are strictly caricatures: the ball-busting lesbian magazine editor, the booze-loving granny, and the poetry-loving policeman’s harridan wife.
Through all its hiccups if there’s one thing that glues the film’s bits together, it’s Ayushmann Khurrana’s uninhibited, confident performance as Karam aka Pooja. He brings grace and dignity to the kind of role that has been reduced to a drag cliché on so many of television’s reality and comedy shows. He makes the film work even when the script fails it repeatedly.
I’m going with two-and-a-half out of five for the film, and an additional half star for Ayushmann’s performance, which makes it three out of five for Dream Girl. Go in with modest expectations and you may not be disappointed.
Rating: 3 / 5