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Bollywood: Bhumi Pednekar pushes the envelope in 'Badhaai Do'

The actor, who plays a queer teacher in her latest drama streaming now on Netflix, talks about gender politics, pay parity and playing empowering characters



by

Somya Mehta

Published: Wed 13 Apr 2022, 3:21 PM

Last updated: Mon 18 Apr 2022, 2:18 PM

Bhumi Pednekar and Rajkummar Rao starrer Badhaai Do at a glance, may seem like a familiar package of social messaging, one that employs the gift wrap of humour, to make a stigmatised reality more palatable. Though, helmed by the creative sensitivities of Rao, playing a gay police officer and Pednekar, who plays a lesbian PT teacher, the film goes on to push the envelope a little further than just merely glossing over the surface.

Suffice to say it retains the spirit of its predecessor Badhaai Ho, a charming comedy that tells of a middle-aged couple that gets pregnant, much to the embarrassment of their children.

Badhaai Do, directed by Harshavardhan Kulkarni, meanwhile depicts the (emotionally) gruesome situations that lead to the formation of lavender marriages in places where closeted members of queer community would much rather choose a life of living a lie over the anticipated humiliation and discrimination they may face as a result owning their truth.

Though, movies like Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga and Ayushmann Khurrana’s Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan have previously introduced the LGBTQ narrative into mainstream cinema, Badhaai Do does a more superior job in comparison, at maturing that narrative by enabling queer characters to enjoy arcs previously left exclusive to heterosexual characters in Hindi cinema.

With its primary release in theatres, the film now seems to have got somewhat of a second life, soaring high on the trending charts on OTT. “Good content will find its audience,” believes Pednekar. In a conversation with City Times, the Dum Laga Ke Haisha actor talks about portraying a queer character in her latest film and why actors need to be platform-agnostic in the digital age.

Edited excerpts from an interview:

Even though Badhaai Do was a theatrical release, it almost feels like the movie got a second release on OTT with the buzz it created…

It definitely feels like the film got a second life when it came out on Netflix. It’s been trending on number one within India and it’s only been a few days since the film has come out on OTT. It’s also been trending globally. To see this kind of acceptance, especially keeping in mind what the film is about, feels great. The society in general tends to get uncomfortable by queer stories, that’s why we’ve not had adequate or fair representation so far.

What’s also great is this reaction comes from a family audience, from different diasporas, different age-groups and different social backgrounds. It’s the same kind of love we are receiving from everywhere because at the end of it all, love is love. I feel like in my career of 11 films that I’ve done so far, if there’s anything that has gone beyond Dum Laga Ke Haisha for me, it’s been Badhaai Do.

Has it strengthened your belief as an artist that the platform of storytelling doesn’t matter as much as the story itself?

One hundred per cent. Today, you have an option of putting your film out on an OTT platform, which is a lot more democratic, secular and tolerant. It gives you an opportunity to do cinema that you truly believe in, cinema that’s varied, which might make people uncomfortable but because you have a safe space to showcase it, you know it will find the right audience.

So far, we’ve also seen that in OTT platforms, content-backed projects take precedence over ‘star’ power. Do you think that ethos can also seep into the theatres or are we far away from it?

Honestly, I feel like that’s not the case for theatres. Obviously, a good film will find its audience even in theatres and it will have an eventual growth. But the star power is so evident. So, I’d be naive if I think the star system does not matter in a theatrical-viewing experience.

Do you wish it didn’t matter?

I’ve experienced what can happen for a good film, when your platform is fair and equal, so it would be nice if the films worked only on their merit. That’s the only way our stories would evolve. If you even see the West, you definitely have stars but they also have the responsibility of churning path-breaking cinema, which exponentially changes the narrative. So, if the power comes with that much responsibility, of creating cinema that shifts the narrative, then it’s great.

A commonality in the type of roles you play is that all your characters have a sense of self. Is it important for your characters to have their own agency?

It’s very important for me to play characters that empower my gender, that challenge societal norms or biases that we're surrounded by. It can be a beauty standard or it can be a law or a ritual. It’s very important to challenge the norms. My cinema definitely needs to entertain audiences, which is my priority but along with that I also want to leave them with an experience that is more holistic, lasts longer and helps people become thinking individuals, rather than just having a couple of laughs here and there.

It also comes from who I am as a person. I make sure that my place as an actor, who has a certain amount of reach and an effect on people, should be used in a way that brings about positive change.

You’re not just standing up for your gender anymore. Now, you’re also standing up for the queer community. Have you always been invested in the issues faced by the queer community? How did you prepare for your role?

Absolutely. I’ve been an ally of the community since as long as I can remember. Growing up, I had a lot of queer friends. I have been a part of their coming out stories, with many nights of shedding tears and heartbreak. I’ve seen how lonely the journey can be, if you don’t have people that support you. So, I think I borrowed different chapters from a lot of their lives and created this girl.

The language of love is the language of love. As an actor, whether you’re romancing a man or a woman or whatever gender you identify with should not matter because that’s where your craft comes in. I had such a blast doing those scenes with Chum (Darang) who plays my girlfriend Rimjhim in the film. It was a very heartening journey to play a queer character. Even though I knew of the experiences they go through, playing this role and going through the heartbreak and emotional turmoil they face, has enabled me to empathise with them, rather than just sympathise.

With cinema being more democratised now, with mediums like OTT, there has also been a shift in the representation of the female characters we see on screen. What’s the one key area, going forward, we need to focus on to further escalate this movement?

The journey has started but we are nowhere close to the finish line. We need a lot more women, not just acting in front of the camera, but writing stories, directing and producing. We need the male gaze to shift and the female gaze to come in. We need more female-led scripts and equality in so many departments. My generation is the one that’s actually finally speaking up. We are fighting the cause.

I will not do a film where I’m not paid my value’s worth because I work hard and I am a smart person. I know this is a business and that’s where my value for myself comes from. If someone can’t recognise it, it’s their loss. But I’m not being a pessimist. We are definitely on the right path. We’re in a way safer and healthier environment as compared to the generations before us and I really hope that through my actions and the cinema I leave behind, the future generations will feel like the world we have created for them is even better.

Badhaai Do is streaming now on Netflix.


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