Where do I begin / to tell the story of how ghastly a film can be / the tone-deaf trash that is older than the sea / the simple truth about the contempt it brings to me / where do I start?
Now that I’ve gotten my cheap thrills out of the way, let me describe what Abir Sengupta’s Indoo Ki Jawani is all about. In the case of fascist governments and terrible Hindi movies, the narration of facts alone does the job of a review. The film opens with Indoo (Kiara Advani), a.k.a Indira Gupta, a Ghaziabad girl in a rickshaw with her horny boyfriend. He wants to “make out” with her, but Indoo agrees to “in out” after marriage, after which she makes a snide comment about how all auto drivers are rapists. Her words are punctuated by comical sound cues, which means that the makers are only joking. While my sense of humour starts to chant for “azadi” from such comedy, the driver surprises Indoo with a “no means no” reference, and a “Like all Muslims aren’t Pakistani, all auto drivers aren’t rapists” is thrown in for good measure. This is followed by the tasteful title credits sequence—an animated montage of Indoo coyly deflecting the lecherous stares of diversely-aged men as though she were a glamorous heroine surrounded by cartoons and not predators.
Indoo proudly declares, in her South-Mumbai Delhi twang, that she is an object of lust in her red-blooded locality. She pulls a lolita-lite turn in front of three sleazy uncles named Ranjit, Pran and Prem—innocently mentioning the length of her erstwhile school skirt, just about stopping short of sucking on a lollipop in pigtails. Her best friend, Sonal (Mallika Dua), meanwhile encourages her to lose her virginity, watch adult films and seek a one-night stand on dating apps. When Indoo’s boyfriend cheats on her, she gets drunk at a wedding and does an item song. This is of course not by choice; her drink was spiked, but it’s a ‘prank’ because everything goes at a Punjabi wedding. When she dresses up for a date, a “single lady song” assaults our senses.
But it’s the language that shines a light on this film’s misguided audacity. Sex is constantly referred to as “jhanda ghadna” (planting his flag), and there’s a parallel track of a mysterious Pakistani terrorist hiding in the area. Not to mention Indira, who mistakenly names herself ‘India’ on Tinder. And that’s when the true horror of the premise dawns upon the viewer: Is this film really using the sex comedy as a metaphor for a communal social-message drama? The sacred world of cheesy plot-driven porn blushes when innuendos like “inside India” and “explosions” are flung around during panicked conversations. Even the Akshay Kumar brand of nationalism would recoil in shock when a Delhi cop sleepily chastises a Muslim man for referring to India as a girl—“she is a mother, mind you”.
It gets worse. All of this actually pales in comparison to the second half, in which Indoo has a meltdown once she discovers that her tinder date Samar is Pakistani. She unleashes a xenophobic monologue that puts the film’s inherent misogyny to shame—one evil trumps the other—something on the lines of how all Pakistanis celebrate the birth of jihaadis, suicide bombers and hijackers. Samar responds in the same vein, criticizing India for being a nation of bhakts and hypocrites. The venting looks therapeutic to actor Aditya Seal, but that’s mostly because he seems relieved to not be playing a Himalayan college stud for once. Then a gun appears, and Samar righteously explains to Indoo—who seems to be modelled on Kangana Ranaut’s twitter account—that it’s always a gun that drives a wedge between two friendly people (nations) like them. Then a cop appears and repeats the same thing. It’s almost as though a film school student quit the movies, became a scientist, invented a time machine, went back in time and decided to write his treatise on world peace in the excruciating language of a sexist 2007 Delhi rom-com.
And then an end credits song features Kiara Advani—whose progressive roles somehow feel more regressive than her famously regressive roles—erotically dancing, or maybe role-playing, as an air-hostess. On paper, I can see the chuckles in fashioning the “coming-of-age” journey of a judgmental, juvenile and virginal girl called India. It’s a concept so idiotic that it’s almost radical. But the subtext is worrying. The government has clipped the wings of artistic freedom so mercilessly over the last few years that liberal storytellers have been forced to find the most roundabout—and in such cases, self-defeating—ways to make political statements without inviting official scrutiny. Indoo Ki Jawani in fact resorts to speaking in the rhetoric of the administration in order to lull the trolls to sleep, before belatedly making its kindergarten-level point. Patriarchy, Islamophobia and sexual abuse are designed as asinine jokes with such conviction that nobody cares about the punchline. The scary part: this is only the beginning. As the title implies, Indoo is still hopelessly young.
Indoo Ki Jawani is now streaming on Netflix.