At pains to balance out its feminism by humourising

In some ways, the new Hindi film Jugjugg Jeeyo (Live Long and Prosper) reminds me of the recent Malayalam release Jo and Jo. The latter was about a daughter facing discrimination from her mother who dumps household chores on the girl while leaving her son free to lounge around. Jo and Jo was so fearful of antagonising the audience beyond their threshold of tolerance for liberalism, that each time it showed the daughter rightly protesting against an injustice within the family, it also swiftly softened the blow by trivialising her and her concerns.

Raj Mehta’s Jugjugg Jeeyo – written by Anurag Singh, Rishhabh Sharrma, Sumit Batheja and Neeraj Udhwani – is more committed to its ideals than Jo and Jo, but it too is at pains to soften the blow of its explicit feminism by balancing out every criticism of a husband’s infidelity and selfishness in a marriage with quick shifts to a tone humourising the same conduct.

Kukoo Saini (Varun Dhawan) and Naina Sharma (Kiara Advani) are rotting in a cold marriage filled with bitterness. He resents her professional achievements because he shifted countries to support her career, and has been unable to make it himself. The two decide to divorce. Shortly afterwards, Kukoo discovers that his Patiala-based father too wants out from his marriage of over three decades. Bheem (Anil Kapoor) intends to break it off from Kukoo’s mother Geeta (Neetu Kapoor), a traditional stay-at-home wife. He has been having an affair with a younger woman, Meera (Tisca Chopra).

Nearly half a century after Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Abhimaan, it remains rare for a mainstream Hindi film to examine the social conditioning that breeds men who struggle to celebrate a wife’s successes unless their own careers outshine hers. Jugjugg Jeeyo does all this and more. Bravo! The film is, however, careful as heck. The narrative is grave and heavy while on Naina and Kukoo’s saga, it tends to be comical while focused on Bheem, and the two stories appear to have been told in parallel lest Jugjugg Jeeyo’s support for Naina hurts too much.

Even within the Bheem-Geeta equation, whenever Bheem is called out on his condemnable behaviour, the writers hasten to assure us that he will not suffer too much because after all he’s hahaha hohohohoho just a man cheating on his wife and hehehe c’mon, it does not count as cheating since he and Meera have not slept together yet and hahaha hohoho hehehe through all this he wants to be served hand and foot by a female partner hahaha.

One of the ways Jugjugg Jeeyo sustains its balancing act is by dissing Meera’s independence and dismissing her sense of self-worth as an unwillingness to fulfil the duties that dear lovely pativrata Geeta has quietly fulfilled for so long.

Jugjugg Jeeyo’s apologetic feminism aims to cater to both feminists and conservatives. As a consequence, it is neither here nor there and may as well be nowhere.

This is, however, not what makes the film a physically painful experience. As Jugjugg Jeeyo swings wildly between comedy and gravitas, as it occasionally quietly inserts counterpoints to its own overt progressiveness, one quality remains a constant: loudness. Make that two qualities that also weighed down the interesting messaging in the director’s earlier film, Good Newwz: loudness, and the clichéd representation of Punjabis as a noisy, boisterous community.

For the record, despite its uneven storytelling, I actually liked parts of Jugjugg Jeeyo. Varun Dhawan and Kiara Advani are good together, this film gives Advani the sort of role that she deserves and should get more of, Anil Kapoor is incredibly charming and energetic (although, of course, the film misuses his charm and verve to make his awful character appealing), Maniesh Paul as Naina’s brother displays solid comic timing in places, and the writers do well with the portrayal of supportiveness between Naina, Geeta and Kukoo’s sister (Prajakta Koli) defying saas-bahu stereotypes. Neetu Kapoor’s Geeta is neglected in the screenplay throughout the first half – which makes the placement of her name as the lead in the opening credits an act of tokenism a la Jayeshbhai Jordaar – but in the second half, she gets time, space and one of the best of the film’s serious conversations.

Some of these elements work well enough that it might have been tempting to forgive Jugjugg Jeeyo for its feminist tightrope walk, but the film’s volume makes that impossible. The sound design opts for quietude in just a tiny fraction of its 150 minutes running time, the soundtrack is deafening and the background score overbearing. The high-decibel humour is sometimes distasteful and often juvenile, such as when a man declares that the only ways for a human being to lighten up are “to do potty or party”, and elsewhere when a fellow is advised never to suppress his “emotions or (bowel) motions”. Oh lord! Rhymes! And the reductive depiction of Punjabis in Jugjugg Jeeyo as hearty, voluble creatures for the nth time is exhausting enough without a raucous song underlining the global love for the community’s joie de vivre.

Jugjugg Jeeyo comes from a long tradition of Hindi cinema (sample: No Entry and the Masti series) treating male infidelity as a comedic device while of course a similar lens is not trained on female infidelity. It is also a ear-drum-splitting experience. Not every film can be a Great Indian Kitchen in its attitude to patriarchy, but this one is a hyperventilating Jo and Jo that dilutes its gains with a heavy dose of backtracking and by creating a din.

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